SINGAPORE: Food and beverage outlets are seeing fewer cases of customers flouting COVID-19 restrictions, but some people are still taking the rules lightly, said restaurant representatives.
Under Phase 2 of Singapore’s reopening, each table or group must be limited to a maximum of five people, with at least 1m spacing between tables.
Groups of more than five people are not allowed even if they are split across multiple tables – unless they are from the same household.
Customers must have their masks on before the food or drink comes and after finishing their meal, but diners often forget to do this, F&B operators told CNA, adding that diners have also tried to mingle between tables.
About two Sundays ago, employees at Fat Prince at Peck Seah Street in the Tanjong Pagar area had to ask a man to leave after he refused to wear a mask despite repeated reminders and turned aggressive, said Mr Michael Pekarsky, director of operations for the group which runs Fat Prince.
Mr Pekarsky said he has also encountered people trying to make reservations for more than five people and asking the restaurant to place them at separate tables. He has had to refuse, telling them it is against the law.
“Most understand and say ‘I’ll take my business elsewhere’, which we understand,” he added.
When CNA visited dining hotspots in Bugis, Clarke Quay, Tanjong Pagar and Holland Village on a Saturday evening, groups of people were spotted breaching COVID-19 rules.
On several occasions, there were groups of more than five seated together outdoors or talking across tables.
Groups of more than five were also seen standing outside food outlets.
For example, there was a group of seven waiting outside a Korean barbecue store along Amoy Street at around 7pm. They had separated themselves into two lines, but stood less than 1m apart from the other group and chatted with each other.
Outside a bar along Haji Lane at about 9pm, a group of six people was seen smoking together.
And as groups of diners waited for seats outside another food outlet, most stood less than 1m away from other parties.
Mr Mohammad Asgar, who runs tea stall Bhai Sarbat where CNA observed a group of more than five women seated together, said that he did not see them.
He stressed that he would have asked them to leave if he had seen the situation.
It is not the first time he has encountered customers trying to flout the rules. Most would split up or leave once he approaches them, but others have turned hostile and hurled vulgarities at him, he said.
“We can’t fight such people,” he added.
Mr Eric Khor, the co-partner of Mei Heong Yuen Dessert’s Liang Seah Street outlet, said that the weekend crowd is heavy and sometimes there is a sudden surge of customers. CNA had shown him a photo of a queue outside his shop. Groups were not standing 1m apart.
He explained that the line could have been of people waiting to make a reservation, as customers who have already done so are not allowed to wait outside for a table.
To manage the crowd, an employee is deployed outside to take down customers’ mobile phone numbers, and they are supposed to wait for the call before approaching the outlet to get seated, Mr Khor said.
F&B establishments fined or ordered to close for not enforcing the rules have been in the news from time to time, as authorities step up checks. Errant outlets include those which served alcohol in teapots after 10.30pm.
READ: 23 F&B outlets breach COVID-19 safety rules, including restaurant that served beer in teapots after 11pm
According to Minister for Sustainability and the Environment Grace Fu, 846 F&B establishments were inspected in the past few weeks, and as of Oct 5, 16 of them were ordered to close for 10 days.
Forty-six outlets – or about 5.5 per cent of those inspected – were fined.
In addition, fines were issued to 53 customers for not observing safe management measures.
The ministry said the numbers refer to checks conducted between Sep 12 and Oct 5.
“In taking enforcement actions, agencies will also take into account whether the operator has taken effort to advise or deter the patron on non-compliance of safe management measures,” said Ms Fu in a written parliamentary reply on Oct 6.
“Dining in F&B establishments involves considerable public health risks because it typically entails gathering in enclosed spaces, without masks on, and for a prolonged duration,” she added, urging people to take the rules seriously.
DINERS NOW MORE AWARE OF RULES
F&B operators said incidences of customers disregarding the rules have tapered off since the end of August, attributing it to the news reports of restaurants and customers being suspended or fined. At the same time, most diners are now used to the COVID-19 protocols.
“I think the adjustments have now become part of people’s ‘going-out’ DNA,” said Mr Pekarsky.
“It has been much easier lately as customers are now more aware and educated on the dining rules,” added Mr Damien Tan, the chief operating officer of Benjamin Barker, which runs The Assembly Ground branches at The Cathay and Cathay Cineleisure.
When there are customers that are “a bit (more of a) challenge to deal with”, his employees would explain that it is not the cafe’s restrictions but the Government’s rules that they are enforcing, and that the shop would get into trouble if they do not comply, Mr Tan said.
Most of them comply after that, he added.
At Sanobar, located at the corner of Bussorah and Baghdad Street, about 80 per cent of its customers keep to the rules, said operations manager Maja Iskandaria. The other 20 per cent tend to be people coming in groups of more than five and insisting that their tables be placed side-by-side or close to each other, he added.
Customers tend to comply after Mr Iskandaria and his team explain the situation, “because (at the) end of the day they know that wherever they go, it’s going to be the same scenario", he said.
“Most of them, they just try their luck, and if they really cannot, they just give you one kind of face and you just have to put up with them till they finish their dinner,” Mr Iskandaria told CNA.
READ: COVID-19: Phase 2 of reopening to start from Jun 19, social gatherings of up to five people allowed
Ms Angeles Herrero, the owner of Kazbar along Church Street, recalls a recent incident involving a group that made two separate bookings. Her employees had to tell them twice to stop talking to each other and threatened to kick them out before they listened.
It was an unpleasant experience, she said. “(We) need(ed) to get to that point, which is not our job … we don’t want to be known as the place that tells you that you have to leave.”
Ms Wilyawati Tjiu, the founder of Korean restaurant group Seonggong, said that based on feedback from her employees, there are now far fewer instances of people socialising across tables compared to when Phase 2 first started.
Her company runs food brands 9PM Kkochi, Seorae, Patbingsoo and Hongdae Oppa.
But her employees are still having to constantly remind customers to keep their masks on before and after their meal. Sometimes, they would hear excuses like “it’s hot. I need to remove my mask for a while” or “I’m about to order more food”, she said.
Ms Tjiu added that the need to remind diners about the mask rule can be quite taxing on her employees, noting that safe distancing officers have approached her staff members to get customers to put their masks on.
Outlet managers said they are not letting their guard down even as the situation has become easier to manage.
Around the start of August, Ms Herrero hired two part-timers who solely enforce safe management measures in her restaurant, such as checking the diners in, reminding them to wear their masks when they go to the toilets, as well as making sure guests from different tables do not communicate.
“Oh my god, it scares me so much,” she said of the news about restaurant closures and fines. “We have always tried to follow the rules, but we have to step up on the monitoring because we need to tell the customers constantly (to follow the regulations).”
Sanobar’s owner Nabil Baroudi said: “Sometimes maybe it is hard to monitor maybe in the first one minute, two minutes, five minutes. But for me, no, when I see there (are groups) sitting down (in) two, three tables … I don’t allow that.
“I’m at the corner of Arab Street, Bussorah (Street). Even if let’s say I don’t care about the law, somebody will see it because I’m at the corner. So I have to be really tough about it,” he added, stressing that he had to raise his voice at a customer last week who insisted on moving to another table so that he could sit closer to his friends.
When CNA pointed out that people from two adjacent tables were seen interacting with each other, Mr Baroudi said "maybe I did not see them" at that moment.
"I will ask him to stop, definitely," he said.
Ms Hererro said it is a “shared responsibility” between diners and restaurants to keep to the rules, and urged customers to do their part too.
“It’s regulations, and it’s for your own safety, for our safety, and for our staff,” she said. “You as a customer, you come and you interact with one person. We interact with 200 people.”
Mr Pekarsky echoed her sentiments, sharing what he tells customers who try to make bookings that flout the rules: “Please understand that these are strange and unfamiliar times and we’re doing our best to make sure that we keep our business (and) keep all of our guests and our staff safe.”