SINGAPORE: Stricter safe distancing rules, which require retailers and food and beverage (F&B) operators to ensure sufficient space between their customers, seem to remain a work in progress for some businesses here.
The measures, announced on Friday (Mar 20), are part of the country’s step-up in efforts to control the spread of COVID-19. Among others, it required retail and F&B businesses to limit the number of shoppers within stores, keep patrons at least 1m apart while standing in queues or dining in, and encourage the use of self-checkouts.
Since then, tape markings on the floor to demarcate queues, as well as tables and chairs left empty and marked out, have been seen at some supermarkets, F&B outlets and retail stores across the island.
But there were also others that have not managed to do so, as observed by CNA on Sunday.
READ: All events, gatherings with 250 participants or more must be suspended to reduce further COVID-19 spread: MOH
This is due to space and time constraints, according to some businesses that spoke to CNA. Nevertheless, they said they understood the importance of these new measures and are working to implement them in the coming days.
At a Golden Village cinema, for instance, staff members have placed bottles of hand sanitisers at entrances for now. Cinema goers are also required to sit two seats apart from each other.
But more measures will be rolled out, Golden Village Bishan duty manager Lyn Siaw told CNA on Sunday afternoon.
“We haven’t started (placing tape markings) yet. We are still waiting for HQ (headquarters) to approve all the measures,” said Ms Siaw. The tape markings will indicate the 1m distance customers should stand apart from each other.
For now, the Bishan branch has already prepared tape for use as markers ahead of the approval, which Ms Siaw expects to come by Tuesday.
Over at Mustafa Centre, it has already placed tape markings at its main entrance and at some cashiers, as observed when CNA visited the mall at about 4.30pm.
While the usually-packed mall was significantly emptier, this was probably due to the timing, said Mr Kandasamy Murugesan, who manages the cashiers.
He explained that the centre had not placed tape markings at all cashier counters yet, as staff had been “very busy” the day before. He added that all counters would have the markings by 7pm on Sunday.
To ensure that customers keep their distance, cashiers have also been instructed to remind customers to stay a safe distance apart, he added.
Tape markings that are a metre apart were also in place at several Starbucks outlets that CNA visited.
The branch at Clarke Quay Central also had its tables and chairs re-arranged on Saturday night, said its supervisor Roselyn Dany. The team will be moving its sofas “soon” to comply with the 1m rule after "getting approval".
However, there are some businesses that have not done so.
Given that the measures were announced ahead of a weekend, the lack of time is one reason for Barcook Bakery's outlet in Clarke Quay Central. With the outlet busy with operations over the weekend, tables and chairs will be re-arranged on Sunday night.
"Nearly half of the chairs will be removed by tonight so as to create more empty space," an employee told CNA on Sunday afternoon.
However, more time may be needed to plan out tape markings on the floor given the limited shop space.
"The area around our display and cashier area is quite narrow so having customers stand 1m apart will mean having our tapes outside of our store, which we are unsure if we are able to do so," the employee said in Mandarin.
Meanwhile, there were no visible signs or tape markings on the floor reminding customers to keep their distance at various The Body Shop outlets that CNA visited.
One staff member, who declined to give her name, said that they “didn’t have any solutions (for safe distancing) yet”.
“Our company hasn’t actually talked to us about it yet,” she said, but added that there was usually no crowd in the store.
The staff member said that as far as she was aware, no other The Body Shop store had received instructions to distance customers. CNA has approached the company for comment.
SOME DIFFICULTIES IN IMPLEMENTING NEW MEASURES
On Sunday, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said that it might take a few days before these new measures will be implemented nationwide, given the large number of retail and F&B businesses.
“All the agencies are taking this very seriously, following up with these F&B outlets," he said at a morning media briefing.
"There are many (of these businesses), so I think realistically, given that the measures were only announced on Friday, we do need time to progressively implement (them)."
However, he warned that there could be “enforcement and consequences” for those that do not comply.
Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing also noted that not all businesses have implemented crowd and queue management systems since the new measures were announced.
“I strongly encourage (them) to do so and to not wilfully disregard the advisories,” he said in a Facebook post.
He said he was aware that the measures “can be difficult to implement”, especially for establishments with space or manpower constraints, and will cause a “drop in revenue”.
However, the measures are critical in safeguarding public health and must be implemented for the country to overcome the outbreak, Mr Chan added.
Since the measures were announced, the team at independent ice cream and coffee lifestyle cafe Creamier has been hard at work.
Thus far, it has managed to place tape markings to demarcate queues, halved its tables and chairs at various outlets to accommodate for more space between its customers, while rolling out other measures such as mandatory temperature taking for all entering its outlets.
It is also encouraging customers to order online and have their ice cream delivered, or fill in self-order forms so as to reduce verbal interactions between customers and its staff over the ice cream displays, said co-founder Khoh Wan Chin.
But while it has managed to roll out these measures fairly quickly, Ms Khoh said businesses could have been given more time for planning and "clearer milestones" that can be achieved in stages.
Businesses also face some difficulties in enforcing these new measures.
“We received a complaint that verbal orders are easier so that customers don’t need to touch the pens we provided,” Ms Khoh told CNA, adding that a handful of customers were also upset after being turned away due to their recent travel history.
“There is no perfect solution,” she said.
“We definitely understand that people want to have a good time when they are out but we are trying our best to create a safe environment,” added Ms Khoh. “At the end of the day, we want our customers and employees to feel assured.”
It has also been a scramble for Mr Logan Wong, founder of Pure Senses and distributor of Yankee Candle in Singapore.
Given that most of his retail stores are between 96 to about 300 sq ft, Mr Wong said it was “very difficult” for his team to map out markings on the floor to ensure customers were kept 1m apart.
“For some of our stores, 1m will mean outside of our leasing line," he said.
While his team managed to do so by Sunday morning, Mr Wong has reached out to his various landlords for approval to shutter his stores for seven days.
This as some of his salespeople have expressed concerns about their safety amid the disease outbreak and challenges in making sure these new safe distancing rules are adhered to.
"Most of our customers go near to smell our candles so are we going to stop customers now? But how are we going to sell our candles if we don't let our customers do that?" he told CNA. "It's very challenging for my frontline people."
So far, he has secured the green light from one of his landlords - Paya Lebar Square - and will be shutting the outlet in the mall from Tuesday for seven days.
“As business leaders, we need to strike a balance between minimising the health risks of our frontline employees while mitigating the business risks during this period,” he said, noting that landlords providing further rental rebates and wage support from the Government will be crucial for retailers like him.
“WE SHOULD ALL USE SOME COMMON SENSE”
Authorities have also called on Singaporeans to do their part.
Mr Chan, for instance, has stressed that “the responsibility cannot rest on the shoulders of businesses alone”.
“Please follow the instructions given by the stores you patronise and don’t make things difficult for the staff who are trying to do their jobs. Even if there’s no queue management system in place, make sure you don’t stand too close to other people in the queue," he wrote in his Facebook post.
“Support your favourite restaurant by ordering your food to go instead of eating in.”
Customers told CNA that they understood the difficulties of business operators hence they were not too worried about patronising places that did not have these measures in place yet.
A McDonald’s customer, who only wanted to be known as Elaine, said that it would be “very good” if stores could implement social distancing measures but she acknowledged the challenges some stores might face.
“To be fair, some spaces in the malls are very small. It’s a bit hard … but I see some (stores) are trying to implement,” she said.
Mr Joseph Lim, who was enjoying a cup of coffee at Starbucks when approached by CNA, said: “I think it’s more important for everyone to practice personal hygiene and social responsibility.
“Businesses can do what they can, but consumers also should play a part. At this point in time, we should all use some common sense. Even if there’s no marking, let’s just sit or stand further apart.”