Some Singapore night spots under pilot to reopen by December; grant to be given for others to pivot to other sectors or exit

This announcement comes about nine months into the closure of nightlife venues, which has seen many businesses crippled and even closed. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Selected nightlife venues will be able to reopen by December or January under strict safe management measures - such as wearing masks on the dance floor and showing proof of negative Covid-19 tests before entering - as part of a two- to three-month pilot programme.

This announcement by the Government on Friday (Nov 6) on the possible resumption of some nightlife businesses comes about nine months into the closure of nightlife venues like clubs, karaoke joints and bars without food licences - which has seen many businesses crippled and even closed.

In the first six months of the year alone, 59 nightclubs, discotheques, dance clubs and karaoke outlets wound up, according to the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority.

The Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) and the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said in a joint statement that they are "working with various nightlife business associations to identify a small number of nightlife establishments to participate in the pilots".

The pilot for pubs and bars is expected to kick off by December and last two months.

However, the pilot for karaoke establishments and nightclubs will only begin by January next year as customers entering the premises would have to test negative for Covid-19 within the last 24-hours, via a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test or an antigen rapid test (ART).

MTI and MHA said the tests may be implemented by the pilot establishments on-site, or as a requirement for customers to visit clinics providing this service before patronising the nightlife joints.

The pilot for karaoke joints and nightclubs will also last longer for three months, said MTI and MHA, because more time is needed to assess the readiness of the industry to reopen. This is in the light of "much higher risks and the more stringent safe management measures required".

Strict safe management measures will include ensuring that all customers wear masks at all times, even while on the dance floor or singing at karaoke joints. They will only be allowed to remove the masks while eating and drinking.

In line with existing regulations, alcohol cannot be sold, served or consumed after 10.30pm too.

Additionally, closed-circuit television cameras covering all common areas and rooms used for activities will need to be activated. Recordings from them, stored for at least 28 days, will be up for regular review by enforcement agencies. Those who breach the measures will not only face penalties under the Covid-19 (Temporary Measures) Act 2020, but may be removed from the pilot.

MTI and MHA said they have been engaging key stakeholders, including the industry associations representing various groups of nightlife operators, and will allow the associations to nominate suitable establishments to participate in the pilot.

After that, they will jointly assess the nominated establishments, taking into consideration their proposals to implement the prescribed safe management measures, and their profile or type of business to ensure diversity among the establishments participating in the pilot.

The ministries said they may also consider establishments with economic or social significance that are strongly supported by other government agencies like the Singapore Tourism Board, but they will not consider independent applications from establishments that have not been nominated by the associations.

Separately, nightlife establishments which are not participating in the pilots will also get financial support packages to either pivot to food and beverage operations, or to exit with a one-off payment.

Nightlife businesses that wish to pivot to F&B or other commercial uses such as offices or gyms will be able to apply for a grant of up to $50,000 from Enterprise Singapore (ESG) until March 31 next year. This is to make up for costs incurred during the pivoting process, such as equipment and third-party consultancy costs.

For businesses that have already pivoted, ESG will extend support to them on a case-by-case basis.

Alternatively, businesses looking to exit can apply to ESG until March 31 next year for an ex gratia payment of $30,000 to defray the costs of the cessation of business. For any retrenchment benefits paid to local employees, employers can also seek financial support for one month of salary paid to each employee.

However, MTI and MHA said that if firms choose to receive either financial support package, they will not be allowed to participate in the pilot programme, or any subsequent resumption of nightlife operations for least 12 months.

Firms are advised to contact the Singapore Nightlife Business Association (SNBA), which is working closely with MTI and ESG to provide support for the nightlife industry.

Some nightlife businesses welcome the Government's latest initiatives.
SNBA president Joseph Ong said that "this is something we were looking out for".

"The government has done a very comprehensive assessment and the solutions are thoughtful," he said.

"It will not satisfy everyone, especially the bigger operators, but (the Government) is trying to help the small companies."

Mr Ong added that the association will help nightlight businesses with pivoting or exiting.

"We will be facilitating the whole process - whether they're members or not - and providing them with the necessary link ups to see (what are) the best options for them," he said.

Ms Francesca Way, co-founder of A Phat Cat Collective (APC), which runs retro bars and clubs Nineteen80 and Pinball wizard, said the pilots "are a perfect way to see how we can work in terms of re-opening in a post-Covid-19 world".

She does not think the suggested measures such as rapid tests and masks on the dance floor are prohibitive.

"At the end of the day, safety is a priority. The fact is that nightlife as it was before needs to change. Covid-19 has changed the way we socialise, and nightclubs have to adapt to that too," she added.

Zouk Group's chief executive Andrew Li said that "anything we can do to push ahead in terms of opening up this industry again in a safe manner is definitely welcome".

"Zouk Group will do whatever which is within our power to pave a way for nightlife and entertainment to come back, as it is sorely missed in Singapore," he said.

Some nightlife businesses are, however, concerned that the new government measures will not work for them, after taking costs into account.

Mr Simon Sim, a committee member of the Singapore Entertainment Affiliation, said the general sentiment among karaoke joints, is that the pilot programme is "not workable".

The mandatory Covid-19 tests are the main obstacle, as the costs of the tests might outweigh the price of a karaoke session itself.

Unlike cruise ship passengers, who might be willing to shell out extra money to pay for the tests to board cruise ships, karaoke customers would feel the pinch more as the sessions are relatively cheaper, he said.

"The pilot is a baby step to reopening, and it's better than not opening at all. But it's not very viable," said Mr Sim, who owns Karaoke Times.

The grants given, while welcome, are also far from sufficient for businesses to exit the industry, as it might not even cover the cost of a month's rental owed to landlords, said Mr Sim.

"I don't think it helps that much, but it is better than nothing," said Mr Sim.

Some customers said they are put off by the safe management measures and would not return to nightlife spots for the time being.

Project engineer Jun Wong, 26, said she would not resume her trips to the nightclubs yet as she has concerns over the coronavirus tests.

Others said they would avoid the businesses to minimise the chance of getting Covid-19.

Ms Jennifer Mai, 24, who works in social services, said she would not want to risk catching the virus in small enclosed spaces like karaoke rooms.

"If we wear masks, it is very stuffy and uncomfortable to sing, so I'd rather not for the time being," said Ms Mai.

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.