Hawkers cheer new dine-in rules, but raise concerns over reduced seating

Stallholders are particularly relieved to hear of the easing of dining restrictions. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO
People dining in at Serangoon Gardens Market and Food Centre on Nov 16, 2021. ST PHOTO: SAMUEL ANG

SINGAPORE - While stallholders at hawker centres and coffee shops cheer the move to allow fully vaccinated household members to eat out in groups of up to five by the end of November, some expressed concerns about overall reduced capacity and complex seating arrangements.

Mr Vincent Goh, 60, the association chairman at Yuhua Village Market and Food Centre, told The Straits Times that the overall capacity of the hawker centre will likely be reduced to accommodate a mix of two- and five-people tables while adhering to safe distancing measures.

"Our hawker centre was built more than 30 years ago so all the 300-something tables are quite close to each other. If you have a table for five people, the next table will probably be closed because it is too near," he said, drawing reference from past experiences when previous Covid-19 measures allowed for five people to dine in.

"And if there are already fewer tables available, and two people decide to sit in a five-people table, what can we do? From a business perspective, mixing two- and five-people tables is not very good for us but it's good for families who can finally sit together," said Mr Goh, who also runs a hawker stall selling economic bee hoon.

On Monday (Nov 15), the Ministry of Health (MOH) said it is working with operators to implement vaccination-differentiated measures in hawker centres and coffee shops. Diners will need to check in via SafeEntry.

The first group of hawker centres to have access control and checking systems will begin taking in groups of up to five diners from the same household before the end of November, said the health ministry without giving details.

Mr Thya Boon Hin, 55, chairman of the Marine Parade Merchants' Association, said that it would be better for business if patrons were limited to groups of two as overall capacity will be higher, but acknowledged that the expansion to five household members will benefit many families.

The association oversees the 84 Marine Parade Central Market and Food Centre, where Mr Thya runs a fruit juice stall.

"After all, hawker centres serve the community so if people want to sit and eat with their household members, we have to cater to that," he said.

However, not all hawker centres may face the same issue.

For instance, Yuhua Market and Hawker Centre at Block 347 Jurong East Avenue 1 has around 150 tables, which are more spaced-out for the elderly and people in wheelchairs to pass through more easily after a major renovation a few years ago.

Madam Karney Ngai, 71, the association chairman for Yuhua Market and Hawker Centre, said most of the 150 tables will likely be available for use, subjected to capacity limit, if guidelines are similar to the previous time when five people were allowed to dine in.

Coffee shops may also face similar challenges juggling the mix of two- and five-people tables, although on a smaller scale.

Ms Nur Julia, operator of Julia BBQ at Serangoon Gardens Market and Food Centre speaking to a customer on Nov 16, 2021. ST PHOTO: SAMUEL ANG

Mr Chew Zhi Jie, 30, owner of Jiao Cai Seafood, a zi char stall located in a coffee shop at Block 306 Woodlands Street 31, said coffee shops can likely rearrange tables to accommodate patrons while following safe distancing rules, although overall seating capacity may still be reduced slightly.

"Maybe during peak lunch and dinner hours there might be a jam or people have to wait for tables, but it's a good problem. At least people get to come in and eat with their families and we get to do business," said Mr Chew, who has another outlet in Yishun Park Hawker Centre.

Stallholders, especially those selling seafood and zi char dishes that lean towards communal dining, are particularly relieved to hear of the easing of dining restrictions.

Mr Pang Seng Meng, 67, founder of New Ubin Group, said: "Any easing is a step in the right direction although the challenge is to give coffee shop operators the time to organise a plan to check the diners' status and home address."

New Ubin's Tampines outlet, which is located in a coffee shop in an industrial building, will have separate two-people and five-people seating areas, said Mr Pang.

"We did this the last time when five people could dine and it worked well for us, so we're doing this again," he said.

Ms Nur Julia, 61, who runs Julia BBQ at Serangoon Garden Market and Food Centre, said she is unsure how the new rules will affect business, although she welcomes the move.

"I'm glad we will soon be able to see families eating together. Seeing grandparents and grandchildren eat at separate tables even though they live under the same roof is quite sad," she said.

However, Ms Julia hopes that the authorities will deploy more safe distancing ambassadors and enforcement officers on the ground to do the mandatory checks, instead of having the stallholders do the checks.

"The management hasn't told us anything about the new rules yet but I don't think we'll be asked to do the checks. It's not our job scope and we're already busy enough," she said.

Mr Anthony Tang, 65, who runs Ah Eng Hor Fun at Serangoon Garden Market and Food Centre, echoed similar sentiments: "I hope the authorities can run more checks because people may flout the rules and sit together even though they don't live together but we, as stallholders, are in no position to tell them not to."

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