Nightlife operators who pivoted to F&B accept new tougher rules, but seek clarity on reopening timeline

Mr Charlie Teo, director of 8 Degree Lounge, a chain of family-style karaoke outlets, and Ms Jolin Goh, its marketing manager, in their outlet at Orchid Country Club. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

SINGAPORE - A two-week shutdown ended on Friday (July 30) and nightlife venues which pivoted to food and beverage (F&B) now have to comply with new, stricter rules that were announced on Saturday.

While operators say they will do so, they cannot resume their business until their premises are inspected - and they want clarity on when these checks will start.

More than 400 such businesses were ordered to suspend operations from July 16 until Friday to stem the spread of Covid-19, following a cluster of cases at KTV lounges and clubs.

As at Saturday, there were 251 cases linked to the cluster.

Under tighter infection control measures for converted nightlife establishments laid out on Saturday by the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment, Ministry of Home Affairs, and Ministry of Trade and Industry, such venues must now have extensive closed-circuit television camera (CCTV) coverage of the outlet and regular, seven-day Covid-19 testing for employees.

Converted outlets must stay closed, including for takeaways, until they pass inspections and get written approval to reopen.

Additional requirements stipulate that lighting must be sufficient for activities to be tracked via the cameras. Operators must also lock all private rooms, with only the main halls permitted for F&B operations.

"I'm not surprised by the tightened measures because there's been a lot of scrutiny over nightlife businesses, but we should be able to meet all the requirements," said Mr Paul Singh, operations director at Terminal 10 nightclub in Clarke Quay.

"If it means we can reopen, sure. It's just a question of when that will be, and when people can dine-in again."

Terminal 10 was among the businesses that were allowed to pivot to sell food and drinks last October. The stringent requirements of the pivot saw it building a kitchen from scratch and hiring four kitchen staff, amounting to about $70,000 in expenses as it moved to selling fusion Western-Asian food.

Terminal 10 already has 35 CCTV cameras covering operational areas, and extra lighting for more conducive dining.

Mr Singh said: "We are not sure how long it will take before the authorities can come and inspect us, as we have not been told anything and there's still a lot of uncertainty. A lot of my peers who are also in the industry say having to liaise with so many different agencies makes them feel like they're on a merry-go-round."

Ms Jolin Goh, marketing manager of 8 Degree Lounge, a chain of three family-style karaoke outlets, feels that the new mandates are "doable".

It has outlets at Orchid Country Club and two Civil Service Club sites in Bukit Batok and Changi.

"We already have CCTV cameras covering every angle of the main halls at our outlets, and that's the only area we open because our karaoke rooms have been closed since we reopened," said Ms Goh.

She is mostly concerned about the logistics of removing entertainment equipment. Under the new rules, pool tables, dart boards and karaoke machines must be out of sight of patrons.

Under the new rules, pool tables, dart boards and karaoke machines must be out of sight of patrons. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

"We just don't have the storage space in our premises to do so. Since reopening, we haven't turned these machines on and there are signs clearly stating that they are not in use, so I'm not sure if this is really necessary," she said.

Another family-style karaoke brand, Teo Heng KTV, pivoted the rooms in four branches to study rooms and co-working spaces. But it will have to clarify with the authorities on whether these operations can continue.

The legacy brand of more than 30 years has been hit hard by the pandemic, going from 14 outlets to six, with the latest casualty being the Bedok Point branch.

"These new rules don't seem to resolve our problem... we're bleeding already, and it cannot be one size fits all," said director Jean Teo, who added that if the authorities are not flexible, "many will be forced to exit the industry".

Instead, she is hoping that a pilot programme for the gradual reopening of nightlife venues proposed by the Government last year can be reinstated.

"We're open to the idea that we are open only to those who are fully vaccinated, where they sing with masks on, all while observing safe management measures," said Ms Teo.

However, with phase two (heightened alert) measures in place until at least Aug 18 where no dining in is allowed, the outlook for these players is grim - whether they can reopen or not.

The latest round of closures had already threatened to hammer the final nail in the coffin for pivoted nightlife operators, who have endured rent and other operating costs.

"We will be happy to reopen, but doing just delivery and takeaway will be very hard for us... If there is no dining in and no rental waiver from the landlords, we might have to close our outlets by year end," said 8 Degree Lounge's Ms Goh.

Mr Singh noted that "even when we are allowed to reopen, we will have to wait it out until dining in is allowed. Customers come to us for the drinks and the ambience - the sales from takeaway or delivery can't cover our operating costs. It's simply not feasible for us".

A Phat Cat Collective, a lifestyle group that runs Nineteen 80 and Rails in Tanjong Pagar Road, is fending off the gloom with a fund raiser for the two concept bars.

Called "Staying Alive", the campaign which runs till Aug 18 hopes to raise $50,000. Other than a staycation giveaway, each day of the campaign will offer different food and drink promotions and even DJ live streams that people can tune into and donate. So far, $6,000 has been collected.

Besides money, the group also hopes to raise awareness of the plight of operators who have been unable to run their core nightlife business for the past 17 months.

"It's very sad to see that the word 'nightlife' has become tainted, when there's a lot of reputable businesses that come under the umbrella, including award-winning bars and name-brand clubs that are important to Singapore's tourism... These are places many Singaporeans are proud to go to," said A Phat Cat Collective co-founder Francesca Way.

The $50,000 fund-raising goal is meant to help defray immediate concerns, such as rental and operating expenses from the burn of the past few months, she added.

"It may be some time before steady income and subsidies come in, and we are just hoping to stay afloat till then," she added.

Following the tightening of Covid-19 rules under phase two (heightened alert), additional support measures for businesses were announced by the Government last month.

Jobs Support Scheme payouts for local employees were bumped up to 60 per cent - from July 22 to Aug 18 - for some of the hardest hit sectors like F&B. They will taper off to 10 per cent from Aug 19 to Aug 31.

Until Sept 30 this year, nightlife operators who choose to exit the industry can apply to Enterprise Singapore for a one-off payment of $30,000 to defray business cessation costs, via the Singapore Nightlife Business Association.

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