SINGAPORE: All events and gatherings with 250 or more participants attending at any one time must be suspended to reduce the risk of further local transmission of COVID-19, the Ministry of Health (MOH) announced on Friday (Mar 20).
This is an expansion of the previous requirement for ticketed cultural, sports and entertainment events to be limited to fewer than 250 participants, said MOH in a press release.
The requirement goes into effect immediately until Jun 30, and applies to all kinds of gatherings, including patrons at food and beverage outlets, religious events, public entertainment venues as well as meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions.
Private gatherings like weddings and parties should also comply with these guidelines, the multi-ministry task force tackling the outbreak said.
"These are a range of very stringent, safe distancing measures which we're putting in place and they are quite far-reaching," said National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the task force.
"They should lead to a change in outcomes from where we are today. We cannot continue with business-as-usual activities.
"It will lead to some inconvenience, but we also need Singaporeans to cooperate and take responsibility for these changes. And if we are all disciplined, it will give us better control over the situation and enable us to to suppress and slow down the spread of the virus."
Singapore on Friday evening reported 40 new COVID-19 cases, including 30 which were imported. This brings the total tally of infections in the country to 385.
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"For events and gatherings with fewer than 250 participants, organisers and event venue operators are required to implement the necessary precautionary measures to ensure separation of at least a metre between participants," said MOH.
These measures include spaced seating at events and reduced mingling of participants such as during meal times.
Events and gatherings must also comply with the existing guidance, which includes:
- Improving ventilation and advising participants to reduce contact with others;
- Putting in place temperature and health screening measures, and turning away people who are unwell, and
- Putting in place measures to facilitate contact tracing if needed, such as obtaining contact details of participants.
"We knew this was going to be disruptive, so we started with an advisory so people could get used to it. But this is no longer an advisory," Mr Wong said.
"Now, we are going to work through all the event venue operators, whether it's a hotel or town council renting out a multi-purpose hall, to make sure that all of these conditions are fulfilled."
The stricter safe distancing measures aim to limit close contact and large gatherings of people in close proximity over a prolonged duration, said MOH.
This comes after the authorities studied the pattern of transmission among locally transmitted cases and found that many were infected during events and social gatherings, as well as interactions between colleagues at workplaces.
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SEPARATION OF AT LEAST 1M BETWEEN PEOPLE IN PUBLIC VENUES
MOH said that operators of venues that are accessible to the public are also required to implement the necessary precautionary measures to ensure separation of at least 1m between people.
For example, queues outside restaurants or retail stores should be kept fast-moving, said MOH. This could be done by making sure all checkout counters are open and by encouraging self-checkout to minimise contact with employees.
Queues could also be demarcated to ensure customers line up at least 1m from each other, said MOH.
"When queuing up, don't stand so close to one another, and certainly don't stand right behind the person and engage in loud conversation because that’s how droplets can spread to another party," Mr Wong said.
"Some of these things will require Singaporeans to cooperate and everyone to do his or her part to be responsible."
Food and beverage (F&B) venues should also maintain a distance of at least 1m between tables and between seats. If seats are fixed - such as in hawker centres - alternate seats should be marked out.
Mr Wong said this means F&B outlets outlets will have to operate on a "significantly" reduced capacity, although he hopes people still patronise them by ordering take-away.
"Doing this doesn't mean that everyone has to cook and eat at home," he added.
"You can still go out and support your favourite hawker store or restaurant. but if the place is full because of more limited capacity, then dabao and bring back home to eat."
READ: Singaporeans advised to defer all travel abroad amid heightened risk of imported COVID-19 cases
MOH added that individuals and family members who wish to sit together should continue to do so, but there should be a safe distance maintained between different groups.
Lastly, entertainment venues such as cinemas, theatres, theme parks, casinos, museum and galleries should adopt measures appropriate to their venue to ensure the 1m separation.
This could include reducing operating capacity to provide more spacing, installing floor markers at queuing areas and adopting chequerboard or alternate seating.
MOH said that members of the public are strongly advised to comply with the safe distancing measures put in place by the operators.
Mr Wong acknowledged that the measures will come at a "significant cost to our F&B operators who are already facing very difficult times during this crisis".
"But this is a necessary precaution which we have to put in place to protect Singaporeans and the people around us," he said.
EMPLOYERS SHOULD FACILITATE TELECOMMUTING FOR EMPLOYEES
In the media release, MOH said that employers are also strongly advised to put in place measures to reduce "close physical interactions amongst employees".
All employers should facilitate telecommuting for their employees to work from home, said MOH.
"Tele-conferencing should also be used in place of physical meetings wherever possible."
For those who have job roles or functions where telecommuting is not feasible, employers should take the following precautions:
STAGGERED WORKING HOURS
Employers should implement staggered working hours - for both reporting and ending times - with minimally three one-hourly blocks, and no more than 50 per cent of total employees reporting to work within each one-hour block.
Where possible, reporting and ending times should not coincide with peak-hour travel, said MOH, especially if employees require the use of public transport.
Mr Wong said this will help reduce crowds on public transport, minimising the risk of transmission.
"If we do (these measures) and push that along, then there is a chance for the loading on the public transport system to come down," he said.
"We will make sure that the public sector takes the lead in these measures. For the other employers, we will also be engaging them and strongly advising all of them to also do their best to pursue all of these measures."
REDUCE DURATION, PROXIMITY OF PHYSICAL INTERACTIONS
Employers should provide for physical spacing of at least 1m apart between work stations, said MOH.
If there is a need for physical meetings, the number of people should be limited and the duration shortened, it added.
Seats in meeting rooms should also be spaced at least 1m apart.
DEFER NON-CRITICAL EVENTS, SCALE DOWN CRITICAL WORK EVENTS
MOH added that employers must limit critical work events that cannot be deferred to no more than 250 participants at any point in time.
Separation of at least 1m between participants should also be ensured, including during meals and mingling during the event.
The requirements and advisories for events, gatherings, workplaces and public venues will be subject to further review based on the global and local situation of COVID-19, said MOH.
Mr Wong said respective agencies will enforce these measures through licencing conditions, pointing to "escalating penalties" comprising warnings, fines and revocation of licences.
"If there is a need, we can also through the Infectious Diseases Act to prosecute egregious cases," he said.
"It is harder to impose or enforce for private gatherings, obviously. If somebody has a party in their home, I wouldn't even know. And that's why we say not everything can be done through government measures.
"Singaporeans have to take responsibility for your private get-togethers. Do it in smaller groups. Don't do them so frequently."
Mr Wong also said that the authorities have been engaging religious leaders, whom he said understand the need for the new requirements.
"Some of them may need a bit more time to make the adjustments. We understand it's not easy; it is very disruptive to the way they go about conducting their services," he stated.
"For those who may need a lot more time because the congregation size is very large and they need to adjust, they may decide to suspend their services temporarily, say for two or three weeks in order to meet the adjustments.
"But all the religious leaders across all faiths are committed to moving in compliance with these guidelines."
Mr Wong also acknowledged that not every venue will be able to implement the measures in a short amount time.
"The relevant agencies are reaching out to each of these venues and making sure that the implementation is done over the next few days," he said.
"And so, within the coming week or so, we would expect a significant shift in what we are used to in all of these venues."
Mr Wong said this should lead to a change in behaviour and mindset, with "peer influence" setting new social norms that can last for months through the COVID-19 outbreak.
"It means staying at home more frequently, ordering dabao for your food more frequently and going out with your friends less," he added.
"And even if you have to do that, keep it in small groups and minimise physical contact."