SINGAPORE - Malls in Singapore were teeming with pre-pandemic crowd sizes in the final weekend before Christmas as shoppers sought last-minute presents in a festive year-end mood.
This was despite the Government urging caution in the lead-up to phase three of Singapore's reopening on Dec 28, which will allow larger gatherings of up to eight and expanded capacity limits at public places.
The Straits Times spoke to several patrons at shopping centres around the island, who admitted to unease over the lack of safe distancing amid crowds larger than they had expected.
"It's very busy in the mall, it's scary to see people going out like there's (no pandemic)," said Mr Muhammad Faiz, who was at Bugis Junction. "You don't know who could be a carrier, and there are so many people around, you could end up being too close to someone and come into contact with (a carrier)."
The 23-year-old usually heads out to town only once a month.
"It seems like people are behaving as if we are already in phase three," added housewife Aisyah Daman, 30.
The Government has warned against complacency during the festive season, with Education Minister Lawrence Wong noting last Monday the concern that "there will be groups of people who let their guard down.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also said this was "absolutely not the time to relax" or imagine "that the problem has disappeared".
On Saturday afternoon, even as it was revealed that 13 people on stay-home notice at the Mandarin Orchard Singapore hotel might have been infected there, malls in the area were packed.
At Ion Orchard, queues of about 20 formed outside retailers JD Sports and Muji.
Shoppers thronged Daiso with baskets full of Christmas goods. Ms Gwee, 33, a healthcare professional who declined to give her first name, changed her mind on stepping into the variety store. "I was turned off by the number of people," she said. "It was so crowded it felt like the air-con wasn't on."
Similar crowds were seen at 313 @ Somerset but they had little effect on a 29-year-old who wanted to be known only as Serene. "There are so many reasons to be out - sales, the festive mood, meeting friends," she said. "I'm not worried… And we are going to phase three soon."
At Bugis Junction, with retail staff saying they had seen an increase in footfall - and sales - over the past two weekends, it was difficult for shoppers to stay one metre apart in some spots, though most seemed mindful of the need to do so.
Outside Toys 'R' Us at VivoCity, Ms Asikin Said, 35, told ST she typically shops online but with deliveries affected by the holiday season, she decided to bring her three-year-old son out to brave the crowds.
Even with the crowd spread out across of the sprawling mall, Ms Asikin said she had had enough. "It's quite bad. We're going home right after this."
Ms Aisyah, who was at Bugis Junction with her family, acknowledged she did not feel 100 per cent safe. "But we still need some entertainment in our life, so we want to go out... we are willing to take the risk, as long as we ensure that we practise good hygiene and wear our masks properly. I'm also making sure my 10-month-old daughter doesn't touch things."
The Government has said it will continue to deploy safe distancing ambassadors and work with retailers to better manage crowds.
Over the weekend these ambassadors were spotted, sparingly, at some malls ST visited.
At VivoCity and Bugis Junction, regular announcements were played over the public address system, requesting people to keep a safe distance, among other Covid-19 precautionary measures.
Said Ms Jenny Khoo, Singapore head of asset operations for the Lendlease group managing malls like 313 and JEM: "Our malls will continue to carry out an enhanced cleaning regime and implement crowd management measures such as directing shoppers to manned entrances as well as deploying security staff for crowd control."
Ms Aqilah Salahudin, a sales assistant at Typo in Bugis, said footfall was expected to remain heavy, with school reopening and Chinese New Year coming up.
She has been reminding customers to keep a safe distance from each other. "(With) Covid-19, sometimes you don't know what could happen… But we have to deal with the risk."