SINGAPORE - When a pilot scheme to reopen karaokes and nightclubs was announced last November, it was a ray of hope for Mr Bryan Ong.
His nightclub, Ipanema World Music Bar in Orchard Towers, had been closed since March, when the pandemic broke out.
Mr Ong, managing director of the club's parent company Strumm's Holding, said: "When we heard about the pilot... I knew that it was something I had to try and take as the first step. We wanted to give confidence to the authorities that nightlife could be something workable."
The pilot programme would allow up to 25 nightlife establishments to reopen under stringent safe management measures, such as masks to be worn even on the dance floor or while singing.
Despite the stringent measures, several like Mr Ong felt it was worth a shot if it would lead eventually to the industry reopening.
Mr Ong pumped in about $10,000 to $15,000 and took a month to prepare the premises for the pilot, which was to have started this month.
He spent about $4,000 to install closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras to cover his premises adequately, and made sure he had enough storage to retain the footage for at least 28 days, one of the requirements for the pilot.
He also rented a warehouse to store excess furniture from the premises, bought sanitation equipment, and recalled some of his workers as he predicted extra manpower would be needed to enforce safe management measures.
But a day before the pilot was slated to begin, Mr Ong received news that it had to be put on hold due to a spike in community cases.
On Jan 19, the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) and the Ministry of Home Affairs deferred the pilot until further notice.
Mr Ong said: "My heart sank. I didn't expect it at all, especially after all the strict measures put in place - masks on, and having patrons test for Covid-19. The vaccines were also being rolled out progressively, and the country was starting to reopen."
He has decided to focus on his two other food and beverage (F&B) businesses while waiting for the pilot to resume.
Other disappointed operators told The Sunday Times they had hoped to make the pilot work, which would have paved the way for the industry reopening.
Many had invested a significant amount in preparing for it.
Mr Caine Poon, managing partner of Cash Studio Family Karaoke in Clarke Quay, said the business spent about $12,000 to $15,000 to get ready for the pilot.
Foreseeing pent-up demand, the operator had jumped at the opportunity.
Mr Poon said: "It's actually very scary now because there is no definite timeframe. It's this uncertainty that will kill everybody and kill nightlife. Being entrepreneurs, instinctively we are always optimistic people. The problem is that no one knows."
Operators said they now plan to either pivot temporarily to other businesses or wait it out as they cling to the hope that the pilot programme will resume in a few months, especially with vaccinations beginning in earnest.
Like Cash Studio, another karaoke joint in the pilot, Sing My Song Family Karaoke, is now operating a cafe to sustain itself while waiting for approval to reopen.
But both karaoke businesses said their F&B concerns were making losses.
Mr Frank Per, owner of Sing My Song at Paya Lebar Quarter, said: "I was really excited when I heard about the pilot. It was a better option than sustaining an unprofitable F&B business. It's a good start for everyone in the industry, and if you don't try it out, you will never see the results."
He had invested close to $8,000 buying extra microphones and sanitisation equipment, as well as installing CCTV cameras.
He is worried about the future, with Sing My Song's second outlet having opened shortly before Covid-19 hit.
Mr Per said he is now considering winding up, and added: "We're now in complete darkness and totally lost on whether to continue. Rental takes up a large portion and it's difficult to get support from landlords because they are also losing faith."
Operators, however, said they understood the pilot had to be suspended in order to keep people safe, and acknowledged that public health was a more important priority for now.
Most are now trying to negotiate rental agreements with their landlords.
While some operators are considering closing down, they are looking at it as a last resort.
Mr Ho Ming Shun, owner of Kloud Karaoke, said he owes nine months of rent to his landlords.
Echoing concerns of other karaoke operators, he said: "Emotionally, it is very tiring. But financially, it doesn't make sense to exit yet because a karaoke is a very capital-intensive business, you have to tear down all the rooms and it cost a lot to set up the place."
Last year, 138 nightclubs, discotheques, dance clubs and karaoke lounges wound up, compared with 115 in 2019, according to the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority. A total of 81 entities joined the trade last year, compared with 252 in 2019.
An MTI spokesman said agencies will assist the operators, and the ministry is working closely with them on the next steps for their businesses.
She said: "They may choose to pivot or exit with the government support provided to the nightlife industry, or wait for the pilot to commence at a suitable juncture."
Ms Tay Eu-Yen, an executive committee member at the Singapore Nightlife Business Association, said that while she believes the nightlife industry will pull through ultimately, this rough patch will take a toll on the smaller players.
Ms Tay, who is also a lawyer specialising in entertainment and hospitality at Providence Law Asia, said: "Options such as pivoting or exiting need to really be seriously considered. Operators need to face the reality that the pandemic is not going to go away that quickly, and even if we do slightly reopen in the near future, the reopening is not going to be an overnight re-entry into a pre-pandemic world."