‘Whatever it takes’: Nightlife venues keen on reopening grapple with strict COVID-19 rules
SINGAPORE: Nightlife venues that have expressed interest in reopening under a newly announced pilot programme have said that they will do "whatever it takes" to create a safe environment for customers, but are concerned about the impact of strict COVID-19 rules - including mandatory pre-event testing - on costs.
At least three karaoke chains have applied to take part in a pilot programme that will allow them to reopen for three months.
But there are other nightlife businesses that are giving this new scheme a miss as they have decided either to pivot or call it quits after being battered by losses during the pandemic.
The reopening trial for a small number of nightlife venues was announced by the Ministry of Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Home Affairs earlier this month. It is expected to begin with 25 participants – namely 10 pubs and bars, 10 karaoke establishments and five nightclubs.
Pubs and bars will have a two-month trial starting from December, while the pilot scheme for karaoke lounges and nightclubs is set to begin in January and last for three months.
The ministries have set out strict safety rules, such as requiring surveillance cameras to be deployed at all common areas and rooms, and for customers to wear masks when singing or on the dance floor.
In addition, those entering karaoke lounges and nightclubs have to be tested negative for COVID-19 within the last 24 hours.
READ: Some nightlife businesses allowed to reopen with COVID-19 safety measures under pilot programme
Other rules include allowing only groups of five in karaoke rooms, which have to be cleaned and disinfected after every use.
Nightclubs are limited to a capacity of 100 people across two zones. Each zone, which can each hold 50 people, can have dining and dancing areas but they must be kept separate.
The Singapore Nightlife Business Association, which previously said it had received 60 enquiries about the pilot programme, began accepting applications from Nov 11.
When contacted on Wednesday (Nov 18) evening after submissions closed, it said it was unable to provide the number of applicants as it was “in the midst of running through the applications”.
Its spokesperson added that it likely "won’t (have) any issues" filling up the Government’s quota for pubs, bars and nightclubs.
The Singapore Entertainment Affiliation, which is taking applications from karaoke operators, said it had heard from three interested parties as of last Friday.
It expects to receive more applications ahead of its deadline on Sunday, committee member Simon Sim told CNA.
The industry bodies have until Nov 23 to submit their nominations to the authorities, although this deadline can be extended depending on the industry’s response.
READ: COVID-19: About 25 nightspots to reopen under pilot scheme; business body urges others to pivot or exit
A CHANCE AT REOPENING
Among those that have jumped on the pilot scheme include Cash Studio Family Karaoke, HaveFun Karaoke and K.Star Karaoke.
Karaoke joints, alongside pubs and bars without food licences, nightclubs and discotheques, have been shuttered since end-March as part of Singapore's measures to stem the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even as Singapore gradually reopened its economy and allowed most activities to resume, nightlife venues have remain closed due to the higher risk of coronavirus transmission.
Amid the prolonged closure, these nightlife venue operators have struggled to hold on to their workers or pay rent after mandatory rental waivers ended in July. The idea of changing business operations is not lost on them, but come with their own set of challenges, they told CNA.
“The value proposition of karaoke joints is the ability to sing and if you remove that, we are left to compete with F&B (food and beverage) businesses,” said Mr Jonathan Zhang, chief operating officer of HaveFun Karaoke.
“Then the question is, why would anyone go to a karaoke joint to eat? The odds are against us.”
The karaoke joints told CNA that they intend to comply with all of the prescribed safe management measures.
For instance, Cash Studio and K.Star are working to install surveillance cameras in every karaoke room – a move that could cost them between S$10,000 and S$40,000.
Some will do more if selected for the pilot scheme. K.Star said it has special sanitisers for its microphones and will provide masks for all customers, while HaveFun Karaoke plans to engage cleaning firms approved by the National Environment Agency to disinfect its premises daily.
WHO PAYS FOR COVID-19 TESTS?
The operators stressed that they understood the need to create a safe environment, but had concerns about who would foot the bill for the COVID-19 tests.
The Singapore Nightlife Business Association has estimated that each test could cost between S$30 and S$100, and hoped that businesses would absorb the costs.
Cash Studio owner Caine Poon said that it would be difficult for operators to do so as charges at karaoke joints - who tend to cater to students and families - tend to be more pocket-friendly.
“Spending at family karaokes can sometimes be as low as S$10 per pax. If the test for each customer is S$50, how are we going to absorb the cost?” he asked.
The administration of these tests is another worry.
“We hope the pre-test can be simplified and (be done) on site. We are willing to absorb the full cost if it’s not too high. If a customer needs to go to a clinic to do the test (which costs) more than S$50 per entry, I don't think this is practical,” said K.Star’s co-owner Rain Lee.
Noting that karaoke tends to be an “impromptu” leisure activity, HaveFun Karaoke's Mr Zhang is concerned that the need for a test and the discomfort of going through one will turn customers away. He is proposing sending his employees for training so that they can carry out antigen-based rapid diagnostic tests on site.
With the additional costs and the possibility of tepid demand from customers, reopening would likely not be profitable, said these karaoke businesses. Even so, it is a step that must be taken to pave the way to an eventual reopening of the entire industry, they added.
“We will do whatever it takes to make sure it’s safe, even to the extent of sacrificing profits, because we really don’t want anything to happen and affect the chances of a permanent reopening,” said Mr Poon.
“We understand the risks and we know it’s not going to be profitable but we think it’s a way forward. We will do everything so that the pilot can take place and authorities can observe the efficacy of the measures. Because if we don’t, then (reopening) may forever be an unknown,” echoed Mr Zhang.
READ: Lights out, music stops: Still-shuttered pubs, karaoke joints call for help amid COVID-19 pandemic
ANOTHER WAY OUT?
Alongside the pilot scheme, authorities also announced financial grants to help businesses pivot to permissible activities such as F&B or to exit the industry.
The Singapore Nightlife Business Association noted that it has received 260 enquiries on both options, with slightly more geared towards pivoting.
Karaoke chain Teo Heng, for one, does not think the new pilot programme is viable simply because it is not able to absorb the costs of the COVID-19 tests.
As such, the family karaoke chain, which has closed two of its 14 locations, is planning to rent out its karaoke rooms as study rooms or spaces for people to hang out.
Students, one of its biggest customer groups, had already been doing so prior to COVID-19, said its director Jean Teo.
“We have tables, chairs and Wi-Fi so we are thinking of allowing students to use our rooms to study or work on their projects. People can also drop by if they can’t get a seat in a nearby restaurant – just ‘dabao’ your food and come over,” she said.
“Of course we’ll very much like to show that we are very safe, but we will follow the Government’s guidelines. The most important thing for us now is to sustain until the time when everyone is allowed to sing again.”
1-Group is also headed down the route of pivoting.
Its 1-Altitude rooftop bar has reopened with a focus on dining, while the Yang Club hopes to transform into a “dinner-tainment” concept, said managing director Joseph Ong. The latter, however, will have to wait as live entertainment remains prohibited.
Likewise, Mr Sim, the committee member from Singapore Entertainment Affiliation, is converting his two pubs into F&B establishments. He has already closed down Karaoke Times, a karaoke outlet at City Square Mall, to cut losses.
The businessman said he is hardly alone in opting to pivot or exit.
“Some karaoke lounges have already chosen to pivot to F&B because they find that this is so much easier than piloting. For them, pivoting is a faster way to reopen for business,” he said.