F&B groups petition for greater support, seat at the table to collaborate on decisions on Covid-19 curbs

The groups are calling on the government to provide additional relief in the form of support for foreigners employed in the industry. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - A few groups representing food and beverage (F&B) establishments, some with members on the brink of closure, are calling on the Government to provide additional relief.

They are hoping for support for foreigners employed in the industry, and a seat at the table in future decision-making that impacts the beleaguered sector.

In separate open letters to Finance Minister Lawrence Wong and Minister for Trade and Industry Gan Kim Yong sent on Thursday (July 22) and Friday, three coalitions - #savefnbsg, the Singapore Cocktail Bar Association and the Singapore craft beer industry - have requested mandated rental relief and the reopening of dining for fully vaccinated individuals, among other appeals.

The ministers co-chair the multi-ministry task force tackling the Covid-19 outbreak in Singapore.

#savefnbsg said rental rebates should be given directly to tenants, as the Government's "encouragement" to landlords to pass down rental rebates were not effective in the past.

The appeals come even as the Ministry of Finance on Thursday announced a $1.1 billion Covid-19 relief package that includes more rental relief and enhanced wage subsidies under the Jobs Support Scheme (JSS) for firms and workers.

JSS support has increased to 60 per cent for the hardest-hit sectors, which include F&B, where the tightened measures under phase two (heightened alert) require them to suspend dining in from Thursday till Aug 18.

#savefnbsg, which represents more than 500 restaurants, including Michelin-starred venues, is asking for JSS measures to be extended to foreign workers in the industry. It is also appealing for a waiver on foreign worker levies and work permit-related fees.

The collective, which started last year as a WhatsApp group with 200 restaurant operators, said: "These hard-working, law-abiding and tax-paying individuals have contributed much to Singapore's dining scene and economy, yet there is no support for them, treated as if they don't exist in the local workforce.

"The burden of supporting them throughout these challenging times has fallen solely on the local companies to bear since the last circuit breaker and these past months of phase two (heightened alert)."

The Singapore Cocktail Bar Association (SCBA) is urging the Government to consider boosting JSS to 75 per cent - the same as it was during the circuit breaker period last year - for businesses that have already weathered three phases of no-dine-in rules.

"The situation is currently dire for these F&B businesses, having depleted their cash flow and are at the brink of going under," said SCBA president Gan Guoyi. She added that two rounds of phase two (heightened alert) this year have had an equal, if not greater, impact on businesses than the crippling circuit breaker.

But as businesses look ahead to recovering from three rounds of closures after current restrictions lift on Aug 19, #savefnbsg is also hoping for a more collaborative approach, where the F&B sector is engaged for future decisions.

"We suggest setting up a task force dedicated to the F&B sector under your lead, with F&B associations and coalitions like ourselves, as sudden closures without sufficient time to plan and organise resources have repeatedly impacted the industry, causing an unnecessary burden on the businesses," its letter said.

Collaboration is also something that the SCBA is seeking, in order to "provide regulated safe places for our people to gather and have healthy social interactions".

In its open letter, the SCBA, which has more than 60 members, noted that "any further tightening of rules in the F&B industry may be counterproductive, as it can prompt our fatigued people to seek ways around the regulations and work against our goal of keeping Singapore safe".

Pointing out that F&B businesses have "implemented more safe management measures (SMM) in good compliance compared to porous hawker centres and KTVs, greater consideration should be given to whether infringements were intentional or unintentional".

SCBA noted that "harsh punishments with no warning or recourse", such as fines and closures, have been meted out to eateries.

Its letter said: "We would like to propose a demerit point system for SMM offences. This would allow for a good check and balance in the system, so that the fate of an F&B business does not lie in the hands of a single enforcement officer."

Both #savefnbsg and SCBA are also calling for easing of the rules to allow fully vaccinated people to dine in, with the SCBA saying this will "provide a lifeline for F&B businesses", as the number of vaccinated people climbs in Singapore.

Half of Singapore's population have been fully vaccinated as at July 19.

Among the other requests are mandated rental rebates from landlords; zero-interest working capital loans or the deferment of principal bridging loan repayments to June next year; and allowing for background music to be played at venues when they reopen.

In addition, the SCBA is asking for the extension of alcohol sale hours to midnight. The current cut-off for liquor sales and consumption is 10.30pm.

The overlooked sector of the Singapore craft beer industry has also petitioned the ministries for the first time, asking for equal treatment with the rest of the F&B industry.

The letter, representing 16 breweries, 13 distributors and 32 retailers, pointed out that craft beer distributors and breweries are "ineligible for various schemes like rental subsidies and Enhanced JSS support that we need in order to keep our staff's livelihoods intact".

This is based on their Singapore Standard Industrial Classification code, where their primary business activity of brewing or distributing beer does not fall under the F&B category.

Only some have been able to tap relief schemes, upon appealing to the authorities.

"The same fixed costs of labour and rent affect us as well, and it is galling to have to constantly appeal to Iras (Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore) to be treated the same as food services for subsidies that will tide us through a lockdown that affects an entire F&B ecosystem," the letter said.

Retailers, who work hand in hand with breweries and distributors, have also taken a major financial hit. Based on the two previous bans on dining in, craft beer retailers have seen a minimum 60 per cent to 80 per cent drop in revenue with each ban on dining in, said the collective.

The industry letter also lent its support to proposed measures laid out by the SCBA.

The letters followed reactions from the Restaurant Association of Singapore, which on July 18 called for more government support and landlords to assist F&B tenants. That was when dining in was to have been allowed from July 19 for up to five fully vaccinated people.

But a surge in Covid-19 infections as a result of the KTV and Jurong Fishery Port clusters saw curbs reintroduced.

As a result, both indoor and outdoor F&B establishments will be allowed to offer only takeaway and delivery services.

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