SINGAPORE - Two weeks after odd-even Covid-19 entry restrictions kicked in on weekends at Lucky Plaza, business owners have appealed to the authorities to relax the rules, which they said have severely affected their bottom line.
As of Saturday (Sept 12), at least two petitions calling for the restrictions to be reversed have been created, as some businesses say they have been struggling to break-even since the rules were imposed.
But the authorities said they are not inclined to lift the restrictions, given multiple breaches and failure by the mall to adhere to safe distancing measures that led to the need for the stricter rules in the first place.
Last month, the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) and Enterprise Singapore worked with the management of two malls - Lucky Plaza and Peninsula Plaza - to implement odd and even date entry restrictions on weekends from Aug 29.
The agencies said the rules were necessary, as the two malls attract large crowds and had persistent crowding issues especially on the weekends, despite the deployment of additional enforcement officers and safe distancing ambassadors (SDAs) to ensure compliance.
Under the odd-even restrictions, those whose NRIC/FIN numbers end in even digits can visit the two malls only on even dates, while those whose numbers end in odd digits can visit only on the odd dates.
Business plummeted under new entry rules
However, the restriction has dealt a big blow to Lucky Plaza's weekend sales numbers, which had just begun a tentative recovery following the end of the circuit breaker period.
Mr Ho Chee Yew, who owns an eatery there, said his weekend revenue has dropped by 95 per cent.
"Ingredients cost me about $450 per day, but my sales last Sunday were only about $400," said Mr Ho, 45, and that he was struggling to make his monthly rent of $7,000.
Together with shoe shop owner John Cheng, 62, Mr Ho organised a paper petition which has been signed by 100 Lucky Plaza business owners as of Friday afternoon.
Ms Jhen Tamayao, 48, who runs a business selling Filipino beauty and food products, said that last Sunday was the first time in 18 years at the mall that her sales fell to just $300, compared with her usual take of between $1,200 to $2,000 on Sundays.
An online petition she launched on Wednesday has been signed by 165 people as of Saturday morning.
But the decision to implement odd-even restrictions came after a string of softer crowd control measures could not address the crowding situation, the STB said.
Entry restrictions not first resort: STB
In an e-mail to Lucky Plaza's management and shopkeepers dated Sept 10, the STB said it deployed at the mall "far more resources than what we have had to dedicate to the rest of Orchard Road as a whole", including seven SDAs every Sunday, as the mall management was not able to manage the situation.
Measures put in place prior to entry restrictions included an appointment system for remittance services, a revised entry-exit system with better separation, and additional manpower to manage queues at the perimeter of Lucky Plaza, including spillover crowds at the relatively narrow main thoroughfare, disrupting pedestrian flow along Orchard Road, the STB said in the e-mail seen by The Straits Times.
Even with these measures, the STB said it received numerous public feedback each week that highlighted the mall's failure in ensuring safe management measures are adhered to, putting the public at risk, it said.
"As the MCST management as well as the business owners have not been able to manage the crowding and ensure safe management measures are adhered to, we are not inclined for the entry restrictions to be discontinued," it said. "This is to safeguard the health and safety of shoppers and workers, as well as the general public."
Ms Ranita Sundramoorthy, the STB's director for retail and dining, told ST that seven establishments in Lucky Plaza, as well as the mall's management, have been fined $1,000 for failing to ensure safe distancing between customers in queues or areas within the premises.
"A total of 26 individuals have also been issued with a $300 composition fine for breaching guidelines on social gatherings," she said. "This is currently the highest number of composition fines issued to any mall at Orchard Road."
Shops trying their best to cope with rules
But shop owners said they have tried to adhere to the rules, even hiring more hands to help. A weekend before the odd-even restrictions, Ms Tamayao brought in a part-timer to enforce SafeEntry and take customers' temperatures at her shop.
Given Lucky Plaza's niche clientele -the mall is especially popular with Filipino domestic workers on Sundays, where many go to meet friends and buy products from home - the entry restrictions mean customers avoid the mall entirely, said beauty products proprietor Roy Tan, who runs Jaz Enjoyz Beauty.
"Why would I come in if my friends cannot?" he asked. "Every other Orchard Road mall had crowds last weekend except Lucky Plaza, it is very unfair."
Mr Cheng, the footwear seller, agreed: "The way things are now, we feel very wronged. At least let the maximum capacity (allowed) to enter, and we may have a chance at survival."
Ms Sundramoorthy said Lucky Plaza, which has a maximum occupancy of 6,445, received close to 27,000 visitors on Aug 23, the Sunday before the odd-even restriction was imposed. It received close to 16,000 visitors on Aug 30 when the authorities "took an advisory approach" on the first Sunday with the new rules, and about 14,000 visitors last Sunday. The numbers comprise repeat visitors and shop staff. The mall said it received about 2,600 visitors during peak hours last Sunday.
The odd-even restriction has helped to address public concerns and minimise transmission risks - while keeping businesses open, she added.
Tough trade-offs to prevent Covid-19 cases
Marketing expert Seshan Ramaswami said the trade-off between allowing more shoppers in and ensuring social distancing is a very tough one, but the alternative scenario where there is a cluster of cases and a potential shutdown of the mall is worse.
"If there are even a few cases detected in a shopping centre, it may be identified as a cluster and that will have a severe effect in lowering the rate of return of regular shoppers for a week or more," said Associate Professor Ramaswami, who specialises in consumer behaviour and marketing at the Singapore Management University (SMU).
Professor Shantanu Bhattacharya, an operations management expert at SMU, described the odd-even restriction as a “blunt instrument”, and suggested that a more nuanced approach can be taken, like capping the number of visitors to each area of the mall at any one point.
But while this might benefit the businesses by increasing footfall and spreading customers within the mall, it would increase manpower costs, he noted.
Stall holders who have signed the petition are hoping that the odd-even restriction will be lifted soon, the same way it was lifted for four popular wet markets on Saturday. The STB told shop owners it will continue to monitor the situation, and will reconsider its view "if and when the situation improves".
For shop owner Ms Tamayao, the clock is ticking down on her business. As things stand, staying open would only mean more losses, she said.
"During the circuit breaker there was rental relief, but there is no way out for us now," she said. "Without any help, our businesses will be unsustainable."