Shut doors, verbal abuse among challenges faced by safe distancing ambassadors

Safe distancing ambassadors Hoo Mun Cheong (left) and Yoon Sook Young patrol the area around Keong Saik Road on May 14, 2020. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

SINGAPORE - Shut doors at restaurants to hamper inspections and verbal abuse by unruly individuals are among the challenges safe distancing ambassadors employed by the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) face on a daily basis.

Staff at some businesses in the Chinatown precinct, for example, have displayed "errant or unsavoury behaviour" towards its ambassadors, the agency told The Straits Times.

In one incident in April, a kitchen staff member at a restaurant was found to have not been wearing a mask during a first check and again two hours later, after which the employee was fined by an enforcement officer.

After this incident, the restaurant closed its doors and windows, and requested that deliverymen call them for any pick up, which bought staff time to put on their masks before opening their doors for checks, STB said.

At another restaurant, staff were frequently spotted wearing masks improperly, and would pull them up only when ambassadors entered the premises.

The eatery also shut its doors and windows for a period, but both restaurants have since become more cooperative following regular engagement, the tourism board said.

Some businesses in the area, however, continue to pose challenges, STB said, noting that staff repeatedly seen not wearing masks often make excuses that they are eating or drinking.

"Our ambassadors have been diligently and patiently dealing with this group, doing their best to encourage them to comply with regulations."

Tourist guides make up more than half of the 125 safe distancing ambassadors deployed by the STB to cover selected precincts as well as hotels, attractions and the integrated resorts.

When ST accompanied two of them on their patrol of Chinatown on Thursday (May 14), most businesses were in compliance with the rules, though some employees put on their masks only when they spotted the ambassadors, clad in red T-shirts.

Some, who had masks dangling from one ear, pointed to a nearby beverage or bowl of food when approached, while others sullenly pulled their mask on.

Business was brisk at a number of newly reopened traditional Chinese medicine halls and popular eateries, but all had 1m distancing markers and other systems to prevent the clustering of customers and deliverymen.

Recent reports of abuse towards safe distancing ambassadors have not shaken Mr Hoo Mun Cheong and Ms Yoon Sook Young, who patrol the streets of Chinatown three to four days a week. While they have encountered difficult employees and endured verbal abuse, they say their experience as tourist guides has made them well-equipped for the job.

"We don't meet nice tourists every day," quipped Mr Hoo, 59.

"If faced with abusive or temperamental people, we have to stay an extra safe distance away," he added.

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Businesses that do not meet the safety requirements or close their doors to delay checks – these are some of the challenges faced by safe distancing ambassadors, who now have a tougher task with stricter rules in place.

Ms Yoon said while most businesses are cooperative, some employ tactics such as shutting the door to keep them out.

It takes courage to press on in these cases, said Ms Yoon, 59, a tourist guide of more than 20 years.

Referring to staff of such firms, she said: "Maybe they feel like they are being disturbed or they are a little bit stressed, so we are very understanding."

Ms Yoon takes a patient approach in trying to educate errant businesses and individuals, even when being shouted at.

"Most of them don't understand the situation, and it's my job to make them understand. As a tourist guide we deal with a lot of people, so we are seasoned at this."

She signed up as a safe distancing ambassador last month, amid the tourist drought.

"Someone has to do it. And if I stay at home with nothing to do it's boring."

While they do not have the power to fine individuals, safe distancing ambassadors can refer errant cases to enforcement officers for follow up action.

The STB said that there were more than 130 such cases between May 1 and 11.

Said Ms Yoon: "This job is about changing habits... We just educate people until they get it."

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