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Nightlife industry worried about business impact, stricter rules if KTV COVID-19 cluster continues to grow

Nightlife industry worried about business impact, stricter rules if KTV COVID-19 cluster continues to grow

View of the Clarke Quay area in Singapore. (Photo: Lydia Lam)

SINGAPORE: Worries about business impact and the possibility of even stricter rules targeted at their industry are weighing on the minds of some nightlife operators here amid a growing COVID-19 cluster linked to KTV lounges.

Cases tied to this cluster were first announced on Monday (Jul 12), when authorities said they were looking into infections among Vietnamese social hostesses who frequented KTV lounges currently operating as food and beverage (F&B) outlets. This has since swelled to 120 cases as of Friday.

READ: Timeline: From KTV lounges switching to F&B outlets, to a spike in local COVID-19 cases

These KTV lounges have “deliberately” flouted the rules of their new F&B licences which ban hostess services, said Singapore Nightlife Business Association (SNBA) president Joseph Ong.

They are also not representative of the majority of nightlife operators that have pivoted their businesses in line with COVID-19 guidelines, he added. About 400 bars, pubs, nightclubs and karaoke joints have temporarily made the switch to serving food since the option was made available last year, according to figures from SNBA.

"BUNCH OF BAD APPLES"

For now, the industry association said it has not heard of spillover impact on the broader industry but that further spikes in infections would inevitably hurt everyone.

“I’m concerned that as the cluster gets bigger and bigger, it can become an issue for everyone,” Mr Ong told CNA. “Because if the cluster grows and people get more worried about unknown cases out there, it will impact … all forms of lifestyle activities like F&B which many of the nightlife businesses have pivoted into.”

“I see (the latest cluster) as a bunch of bad apples in a whole basket of good apples … and it is something that we have to take strong, serious action against,” he added.

So far, three nightlife operators that had converted to F&B have had their licences revoked for breaching COVID-19 protocols, the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment said late on Thursday.

READ: F&B licences of 3 former nightlife venues revoked over COVID-19 breaches

Authorities are also investigating the pivoted outlets visited by COVID-19 cases, said the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority and the Ministry of Manpower in a joint statement early on Friday.

“The police and relevant authorities will also be stepping up enforcement against breaches of safe management measures, as well as vice and other illegal activities, in the other pivoted KTV outlets,” they added. 

SNBA said the latest incident underscored the need for all players to be responsible if the battered industry wants to be able to resume their core businesses when authorities further reopen the economy.

“This shows that everyone has a part to play in operating with the safe management measures in mind and make sure that we do not allow other people to operate in a clandestine manner,” said Mr Ong.

“My advice to everyone is – if they are operators, they should stay clear of doing the wrong things. For the rest, if they discover or find anything wrong, they should let the authorities know.”

READ: First reported COVID-19 case of KTV cluster entered Singapore via familial ties lane: ICA, MOM

FEARS OF STRICTER RULES

Nightlife businesses that spoke with CNA said they are worried about the possibility of stricter rules targeted at their industry.

“My concern is more on how the Government might come up with new rules for us,” said Mr Alvin Chua who co-owns a pub in Outram. “Every time there are more cases, they will take action.”

He converted his pub into a snack bar last December but business remains poor. “We only open on alternate days now because there’s really no point,” he said, adding that stricter curbs will be further bad news.

Echoing that view is Mr Joshua Pillai, co-founder of entertainment group A Phat Cat Collective which runs bar and lounge Rails and retro-themed arcade bar Nineteen80. Both Rails and Nineteen80 have been converted into F&B outlets since the start of the year.

“The KTV cluster is clearly a cause for concern ... and has caused a bit of commotion for everyone. Many of us have been doing our part and converted to normal restaurant settings just serving food and drinks,” he said.

“But because we are all lumped under the same nightlife category, what we are concerned about is that there will be stricter measures for all of us. And that will be a bit undeserving because we have very different business operations and we understand our social responsibility.”

Mr Pillai added: “I think this is one of the things that the Government will need to look at specifically to see how they want to deal with it.”

READ: A look at COVID-19 nightlife clusters in Asia

While the number of reservations at his outlets has held steady, there is a sense of uncertainty amid the growing number of infected cases. To protect staff and customers from the possibility of hidden community cases, the outlets have also increased the spacing between dining tables to beyond 1m.

“So far for yesterday, the reservations (for the weekend) seem ok but for all you know, things might differ after lunch as more news emerges,” said Mr Pillai. 

FAMILY KARAOKE CHAINS CALL FOR DIFFERENTIATION

The latest development has also stirred another segment of businesses – the family karaoke chains that operate in shopping malls and cater to families and students – to start a petition.

Nine of these operators, including popular chain Teo Heng, are appealing for their businesses to be taken out of the nightlife industry grouping that also includes the likes of nightclubs and discotheques.

They said the emergence of the KTV cluster has “trashed (their) hopes” of reopening.

“We, a group of family karaoke businesses, see that there is a need to separate us from nightclubs and KTV with hostess,” read the petition posted by Ms Shermain Pea, managing director of 7th Heaven KTV and Cafe, on Thursday afternoon.

“We are not the same. We do not have hostess; we are not primarily night-time businesses or adult-only venues," it added, noting that the private rooms at these family karaoke joints are “highly compatible with safe distancing”.

“Lumping us together in the overly broad nightlife category is not justifiable,” according to the petition, which is also pushing for family karaokes to be allowed “to operate with restrictions” such as only allowing patrons who are fully vaccinated.

Family karaoke petition

Mr Frank Per, who owns Sing My Song Family Karaoke at PLQ Mall, said operators like him have installed surveillance cameras in every karaoke room, special sanitisers for microphones and engaged cleaning firms to disinfect their premises daily.

These were the prescribed safe management measures mooted under a pilot scheme for reopening, but was in January postponed amid an increase in the number of COVID-19 community cases.

With that, many like Mr Per had to pivot their establishments to F&B outlets while also allowing people to rent their spaces for work at an hourly rate.

But the shift has not helped to alleviate woes, with many customers “finding it weird and awkward” to eat at a family karaoke chain, said Mr Per. “Business is very poor. Sometimes it's zero (sales).”

READ: ‘Whatever it takes’: Nightlife venues keen on reopening grapple with strict COVID-19 rules

“I think consumers know we are different from those nightclubs, even though the Government does not differentiate us,” he added, noting that operators like him are willing to comply with strict safety protocols just to reopen.

“We are heavily suffering even though we supported the need for safety measures (at our premises) since the start," Mr Per added.

"We don’t have any more patience to keep on waiting and if this trade cannot operate for the next one to two years, please give us a definite answer so that we will cut all our losses.”

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Source: CNA/sk(ac)

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