Singapore restaurant owners vent frustration as dine-in shutters

People walk past a restaurant with stacked chairs and tables in the business district in Singapore. Bloomberg

SINGAPORE, July 24 (Bloomberg): Some of Singapore’s top chefs are fed up with the government’s on-again, off-again measures to stop the spread of Covid-19, which include a temporary shutdown of in-person dining.

Faced with a surge of cases from clusters related to karaoke lounges and a fishery port, authorities announced tighter controls, including a stoppage of eating at restaurants until Aug 18.

The ban on dine-in, which took effect on Thursday after a Tuesday announcement and comes just a month after it had been allowed again, dealt another blow to an industry that for more than a year has struggled to navigate changing rules, policies that eat into their revenue, and tight scrutiny.

"The food and beverage industry is disgusted with this last news,” Chef-Owner Ryan Clift of Tippling Club said in a WhatsApp message.

Restaurants have "now just been bent over by an industry that quite frankly should not exist in a country that prides itself on such high standards and strict regulations,” he said, referring to the karaoke cluster and nightlife establishments’ ability to apply for food and beverage licenses in order to continue operating in pandemic times.

When dining-in was barred for slightly more than two months during a full circuit breaker in 2020 and again a couple of months ago, restaurants adapted their offerings to take-away. When it was allowed again, the number of diners per party was limited, and distancing guidelines meant many establishments lost seating capacity.

Other strict rules were also enforced. Alcohol wasn’t allowed on tables after 10:30 p.m., groups were told not to mingle, and masks were required unless the person was eating or drinking. Recorded music and television screenings were also forbidden "to reduce the expulsion of droplets from individuals having to raise their voices over the entertainment,” as the Ministry of Health put it.

"Speechless,” said Ivan Brehm of Michelin-starred Nouri, which ranked number 73 in a list of Asia’s best restaurants list for 2021, on Facebook Wednesday. "This last lockdown.... a pill very hard to swallow. Wondering how much of Covid cases worldwide or in S’PORE specifically are directly connected to restaurants... or music for that matter. Politics, cosmetic policies, disdain for an industry all too eager to help, and sheer arrogance; a recipe for disaster. Believe me, I’m a Chef.”

The comments are notable because businesses typically shy away from directly criticizing the government in Singapore, where the ruling People’s Action Party has governed the nation since 1965.

In a Facebook post on Wednesday, Singapore’s Health Minister Ong Ye Kung explained that while no cases had been detected at restaurants, dining-in had to be suspended to prevent social gatherings which could potentially "turbo charge” the fishery port cluster which has since spread to local wet markets and food centers.

”If 5 friends meet for dinner, each has 5 people at home, who in turn meet their friends in groups of 5, we have a network of 5x5x5=125 connections for the virus to work itself through,” he said.


Still, some F&B owners are questioning the move as supervision had been tight, with many mid-level and upscale restaurants saying that Singapore’s "social distancing ambassadors” were conducting frequent surveillance, including taking photos of their establishments and asking them about whether they were following protocols.

"Frustration is what I feel most at this moment,” said Max Strauch, head chef at The LoKal, in a WhatsApp message Friday. "We are checked on a daily basis by officers and we 100% comply with the rules, and then something like this KTV thing happens makes me feel really, really angry.”

His pain is shared across the industry with the stallholders at hawker centers and food outlets suffering too. Those in the central business district were seeing sluggish business even before the latest clampdown on dine-in as office employees continue to work from home, Today reported.

"It feels like double standards are being applied and who knows why,” Strauch said. - Bloomberg

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