SINGAPORE - It was a markedly quiet morning at Chong Pang Market, one of Singapore's most popular wet markets, as it reopened on Thursday (Aug 5) after a two-week closure.
While the neighbourhood centre outside was bustling with activity, stallholders lamented the thin crowds inside.
A fishmonger who gave his name only as Mr Yap said: "This is one of Singapore's top four markets. Look at it now. Big market also dying. What to do?"
Chong Pang Market was one of four popular wet markets that had to implement entry restrictions last year based on the last digit of patrons' NRIC number.
Nee Soon Town Council told The Straits Times that only 10 per cent of the 123 stalls in the market reopened for business on Thursday.
There were about 2,000 visitors from 7am to 11am, a third fewer than typical weekday mornings.
Mr Steven Koh, 60, chairman of the Chong Pang City Merchant and Hawker’s Association, said some stallholders had just completed their quarantine and needed time to prepare before reopening for business.
Others are playing it safe and plan to reopen once more visitors return to the market.
Mr Yap, 29, said business at his stall has fallen by 80 per cent since the Covid-19 outbreak at Jurong Fishery Port last month.
He said that despite bringing in fewer supplies in anticipation of slower business on the first day of the market's reopening, he still had about half of his stock left at 10am. He had opened his stall at 4am.
"We definitely cannot clear it all by today," he said.
Chong Pang Market is one of several markets and hawker centres that were forced to shut in the wake of the massive Jurong Fishery Port cluster.
The cluster is also the reason behind Singapore's recent move back to phase two (heightened alert), with tighter Covid-19 restrictions.
Along with Haig Road Market and Food Centre, the wet market in Chong Pang was closed to the public for two weeks from July 21 to break the chain of Covid-19 transmission and to enable deep cleaning of the premises.
This was after 35 Covid-19 cases were detected among people who worked at or visited the two places. There were 25 such cases detected at Haig Road Market and Food Centre, and 10 at Chong Pang Market.
Chong Pang Market was first closed for cleaning on July 18 after a fishmonger working there tested positive for the coronavirus.
More infections detected at the market led to the two-week closure. The adjacent food centre also underwent deep cleaning but was allowed to remain open.
Nee Soon Town Council later said it would waive service and conservancy charges, as well as temporary occupation licence fees, for affected stallholders for the two-week period.
This is also the case at seven other markets and food centres managed by PAP-run town councils that were closed after the emergence of Covid-19 clusters.
On Thursday, patrons visiting Chong Pang Market were required to check in and check out using their TraceTogether app or token. A barrier had been set up to create designated entry and exit points.
Safe distancing ambassadors and personnel from the town council and NTUC Foodfare, which manages the wet market, were deployed to make sure people complied with safe distancing measures.
Staff from a community centre nearby were seen going stall to stall to give out fliers with information on the assistance available to stallholders.
While the loss of two weeks of income has been a blow to some like Mr Yap, who said he had to dispose of stock worth a few thousand dollars due to the market's closure, for others like Mr Andy Lee, rental relief and the daily $100 quarantine allowance can cover losses.
Mr Lee, 37, who sells beancurd, frozen food and other dry goods and was back to tidy up his stall, said he did not expect much business in the short term.
Sales had already slowed by 30 per cent to 40 per cent for him after the Jurong Fishery Port cluster emerged.
He said the way the quarantine orders were issued to stallholders was messy and confusing - for instance, not everyone was served quarantine orders at the same time.
He said his father had visited the stall on July 11 but was asked to serve his quarantine only on July 23, and ended up isolating for only three days.
Mr Lee himself was served with a quarantine order on July 19 but could isolate himself in a hotel room only on July 25 because there were no rooms available, he said.
His cousin, who also operates a stall at the market, had his quarantine extended by three days as his exit swab test was taken only on Aug 1, the last day of his two-week isolation period.
A seafood stall worker who declined to be named said she was on the verge of tears when issued with her quarantine order, as she was worried about getting the virus and what the quarantine experience would be like.
"Now I know it is not so bad," she said in Mandarin.
Stallholders interviewed said they are fully vaccinated and were more worried about their income.
Mr Yap said he was shocked when Covid-19 cases were detected among the stallholders at the market as they had been careful about hygiene - wearing masks and gloves and using hand sanitiser frequently.
But, according to him, some stallholders had gone to work despite being sick.
"The Government has been focusing on hawker centres and it seems to have forgotten about the wet markets. I hope it can help us more," he said.
Mr S. Raamesh, 51, who owns a mutton stall, was more sanguine, despite having to close his stall during the Hari Raya Haji period, when sales would have been at a peak.
He said he had to return about $4,000 worth of stock to his supplier, who was luckily able to sell it to stallholders in other markets.
"Definitely, there is a loss, but no point worrying about it. The relief we get from the Government is enough to cover our overhead," he said.
"It is just a small holiday for us. For us stallholders, it is not so easy to go on vacation."
While stallholders expect business to remain slow, they were optimistic that sales would pick up.
"It will come back. It is just a matter of time," Mr Yap said.
When ST visited Haig Road Market and Food Centre at 8.30am on Thursday, most stalls were closed.
Fruit stall owner Lim Liang Seng, 54, told ST that the market and hawker centre will officially open only on Saturday.
Stallholders will be returning to the market on Thursday and Friday to clean and disinfect their stalls, he said.
The market undergoes spring cleaning every three months and the next one was scheduled for September, but the tenants took the opportunity to ask the town council to bring it forward to Aug 5 and 6, he said.
"We asked for it to be carried forward, so that when we resume operations, we don't have to close for another one or two days afterwards," he said.
In a Facebook post on Wednesday, Marine Parade Town Council said it will be carrying out additional washing at the market and hawker centre over the next two days.
Mr Lim, who has been running his fruit stall for 30 years, said this is the longest he has had to close his stall. He is glad to be able to run his business again. "I feel better now that things can go back to normal."
Florist Mindy Foo, 60, said she is worried business will be poor when the place reopens.
She said in Mandarin: "Even if we are open, people are still worried about coming in. Most of our customers are elderly. Once they see that they need to enter the market with SafeEntry, they may be unwilling to do so. Their children may have also told them not to come to the market."
She added: "On Saturday, some customers see this orange mesh surrounding the market and think that it is not open yet."
The town council said it has set up fencing and SafeEntry check-ins at all its markets and hawker centres so that the public can safely visit these places.
Madam Foo expects that it will take at least eight to 10 days for the crowds to return.
Despite the extended closure, patrons at Haig Road said they understood why it was necessary.
On Thursday, Madam Baey Soon Hiang, 65, who works at a post office nearby, came to the market to buy vegetables, but left empty-handed as it was still closed.
She said in Mandarin: "I think it's okay, it can't be helped. It's also better that they open later, so that it is safer for the patrons."
Retiree Madam Nancy Chia, 83, said she hopes the market can reopen soon as she has to walk slightly farther to the nearby supermarket and coffee shop to buy groceries and food.
She said in Mandarin: "Elderly people were told not to go out often, so we try not to travel too far. We also get our children to buy groceries for us, but they may not know how or what to buy."
Madam Chia, who is fully vaccinated, said that even after the market reopens on Saturday, she may wait at least a week before visiting it.
She said she is not concerned about having to queue or to check in with SafeEntry to enter the market.
"It is safer and also for the good of everyone," she said.
Earlier this week, Hong Lim Market and Food Centre and Chong Boon Market and Food Centre reopened after closing for two weeks.
Markets in Whampoa Drive and Boon Lay Place which were also closed due to Covid-19 cases will reopen on Friday and Saturday, respectively.