Lights still out as Singapore's nightlife sector awaits better times amid Covid-19

The nightlife industry, comprising nightclubs, bars and pubs, remains one of the last remaining economic sectors with no clear visibility on reopening.
The nightlife industry, comprising nightclubs, bars and pubs, remains one of the last remaining economic sectors with no clear visibility on reopening.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

SINGAPORE - One business sector has not been able to raise its glass to better times as Singapore moves towards treating Covid-19 as endemic.

A new dawn for the nightlife industry has yet to come, even as the country rolls out more vaccinated travel lanes and fine-tunes protocols for holding larger-scale business and leisure events.

The nightlife industry, comprising nightclubs, bars and pubs, remains one of the last remaining economic sectors with no clear visibility on reopening.

The casualties are mounting as a 20-month moratorium on live music and 10.30pm cut-off for alcohol sales and consumption - in place since March 2020 - persists.

The Singapore Nightlife Business Association (SNBA) said it received 350 applications - as at the Sept 30 deadline - to get a one-off payment of $30,000 from Enterprise Singapore (ESG) to defray business cessation costs. The figure makes up around 9 per cent of the industry's 4,000 outlets.

This is in addition to an estimate of more than 250 businesses that have not been allowed to resume operations following a two-week shutdown of nightspots in July. At that time, around 400 nightspots - which had pivoted to food and beverage (F&B) - were ordered to close after a surge in Covid-19 cases at KTV lounges and clubs.

The Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) said that as at Nov 11, only around 130 of such establishments have been approved to resume F&B operations.

An SNBA spokesman said: "Many operators have given us feedback that the mandatory closure for nightlife businesses seems unfair, as almost all sectors in Singapore have been able to resume safely with the necessary safeguards and measurements, while the industry is not given a chance to operate."

While recorded music has been allowed again in F&B venues after a five-month halt, SNBA hopes "live music and entertainment is next to be explored, on a small scale or perhaps via some form of pilot, to start bringing back the vibrancy of the sector".

In response to queries from The Straits Times, MTI said it "continues to explore ways to pilot the reopening of the nightlife sector, keeping in mind the need to do so in a careful and calibrated manner, to safeguard public health".

Meanwhile, the Government has handed out Job Support Scheme benefits at several points over the last 20 months, partly subsidising salaries of local staff. Up till end-September, ESG also accepted applications for grants of $30,000 for those looking to exit the sector.

With dark clouds still hovering, some existing players are weathering the uncertainties by evolving. Good Luck Beer House in Haji Lane, a craft beer bar for five years, is now Good Luck, a noodle bar.

Heart of Darkness, a craft beer bar in Keong Saik Road, had to shut for almost two weeks before it was allowed to reopen, after changes such as setting up a screen to hide its beer taps and repurposing its menu to be more food-centric.

Despite parched times, new players continue to bet on good times ahead. Honcho, an ambitious new F&B concept spanning three floors in a shophouse in Ann Siang Hill, plans to open next month.

However, the industry largely remains battered and bruised.

"It has been an uphill battle for our industry... The instability of the business environment, coupled with continued rising costs due to constant government policy implementations, has resulted in an industry worn down and defeated," said a spokesman for the Singapore Cocktail Bar Association. It represents more than 60 bars.

Mr Joshua Pillai, co-founder of entertainment company A Phat Cat Collective, said: "The reality is that the current nightlife scene, as we know it, is completely eradicated at the moment. The current situation does not favour or try to reasonably sustain the current players, but the fact is, F&B players will always come and go."