Small business owners in S'pore raise concerns over Covid-19 ventilation guidelines

Frasers Property says its buildings, like Northpoint City (above), use high-efficiency filters in the air-conditioning units.
Frasers Property says its buildings, like Northpoint City (above), use high-efficiency filters in the air-conditioning units.ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

SINGAPORE - Fashion retailer Goodluck Bunch is looking to improve ventilation at its store but cracking open the windows to let fresh air in is not the most convenient in the two-storey shophouse in Bali Lane.

The windows can be opened only about 20cm and the store appears to trap heat in, said the shop's creative director Quek Swee Ying.

"If the air-conditioning is not turned on, the interior would be sweltering. It is a bit different because the nature of the shophouse infrastructure is old and thus can trap more heat," said Ms Quek, who added that the store is looking to buy an air purifier with a $300 budget.

The store may also use industrial-grade fans to cool the place down.

The Straits Times reached out to small business operators and real estate companies who say they have taken steps to improve building ventilation and air quality, amid concerns that the coronavirus which causes Covid-19 may spread through airborne transmission in some settings.

A spokesman for Frasers Property, which manages malls like The Centrepoint, Northpoint City and Tampines 1, and commercial properties, such as Frasers Tower and Alexandra Point, said its buildings employ high-efficiency filters in the air-conditioning units that are replaced frequently.

It has also increased the duration of indoor air purging at office buildings it manages.

"Over the past year, our commercial and retail properties have in place regular deep cleaning and disinfection as well as safety and hygiene measures. We have also been working closely with our contractors to ensure overall health and hygiene standards for our properties' air-conditioning and ventilation systems," said the spokesman.

The Building and Construction Authority, National Environment Agency and Health Ministry had released updated guidelines on May 25, following an uptick in Covid-19 cases in the community.

Under the new directive to building owners and facility managers, spaces without mechanical ventilation - such as retail shops - should have their doors and windows opened as frequently as possible, with the air-conditioning reduced or turned off.

Portable air cleaners with high-efficiency filters may also be considered as an interim measure in enclosed spaces, where the risk of disease transmission is high.

A spokesman for real estate and healthcare company Perennial Holdings said it has been ensuring that the ventilation systems in properties it manages are working and the indoor air is purged daily.

The company manages retail and mixed-use properties such as Chijmes, Chinatown Point, AXA Tower and Capitol Singapore.

Perennial Holdings added that it will be increasing its air-purging frequency from once to thrice a day. Street-level main doors at its malls will also be kept open for 30 minutes three times a day.

The spokesman said it will also work with its street-fronting tenants to keep their doors open for two hours and install ultraviolet lights for disinfection in its air-handling units, which are used to regulate and circulate air for air-conditioning systems.

The company will also incorporate plans to improve ventilation, such as having more open spaces and landscaping areas, in their upcoming projects like the redevelopment of AXA Tower and business park Perennial Business City.

The spokesman said: "The extensive modification to the equipment involves relatively high cost and may impact operations. In addition, the extended operating hours of all mechanical ventilation systems and the increased frequency to maintain the systems will also result in higher operating costs for landlords and tenants during this difficult period."

For Mr Amos Wong, owner of Belo Cafe in Upper Thomson Road, turning off the eatery's air-conditioning will make it tough for his staff.

"Without air-conditioning, heat will be made worse not only for the customers, but also for the staff. Can you imagine the heat in the kitchen with all the ovens? Equipment such as ovens, open flame stoves and fryers all generate heat as well," he said, adding that the kitchen is mostly enclosed and the backdoor is usually closed for hygiene reasons.

He said while dining in is not allowed now, the measures appear to be for the longer term.

To keep the place cool, he is looking at buying fans, installing air curtains and paying for air purifiers, which have seen healthy sales at large electronics retailers.

At a time when food and beverage businesses have taken a hit to their bottom line, Mr Wong is hoping he can keep costs to under $1,000.

"We did not expect to see these additional costs in our expenditure. Our revenue has already dropped. But we recognise that these measures are absolutely necessary for the customers' safety," he added.

Additional reporting by Anjali Raguraman