SINGAPORE - As clampdowns on businesses and individuals that breach safe-distancing measures continue, shopping malls are no exception to scrutiny.
Entry restrictions may be imposed on malls that face crowd management issues even as more visitors are allowed in under phase three of Singapore’s reopening, the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) and Enterprise Singapore (ESG) told The Straits Times on Friday (Jan 8).
The restrictions may be similar to the odd-even weekend entry in force at Peninsula Plaza and Lucky Plaza since Aug 29.
Under these guidelines, patrons can visit the malls only on odd or even dates according to whether the last digit of their NRIC or FIN number is odd or even.
The restrictions remain in place even though phase three has eased the capacity limit for malls from 10 sq m to 8 sq m per person since Dec 28.
When announcing the measures in August last year, STB and ESG said the two shopping centres attract larger crowds and longer queues to enter them over a sustained period, especially on weekends, compared with other malls.
Peninsula Plaza and Lucky Plaza are especially popular with domestic workers from Myanmar and the Philippines respectively, and many visit to meet friends and buy products from home on Sundays - a common day off for these workers.
Some businesses reliant on this niche clientele said they struggle to make ends meet. Some owners said they have failed to break even for months.
Ms Jhen Tamayao, who runs a business selling Filipino beauty and food products in Lucky Plaza, said her Sunday takings are now a mere $300, compared with about $1,500 to $2,000 before Covid-19.
The 49-year-old added that she has dug deep into her savings to fund losses over the past few months, and has also started stocking perishable foodstuffs of lower value since November last year, as many of her unsold stocks end up expiring and adding to her losses.
Others like Mr Eric Chia, who owns three clothing shops in Peninsula Plaza, said he could make about $4,000 in sales on weekends before the pandemic, but that figure has dropped by about 75 per cent now.
Coupled with high rental, the 72-year-old said the loss of footfall has caused him to incur heavy losses.
Lucky Plaza’s J Star Mobile Electronic handphone shop owner Mr Jeffrey Chong has seen his sales figures drop by a similar margin.
The 37-year-old, whose shop unit is located next to one of the mall's entrances, said he has also seen groups make a U-turn at the entrance upon finding out about the restrictions.
"If not everyone in their group can enter, they see no point in coming and they go elsewhere," he said.
While crowds are thin in Peninsula Plaza, foreign workers still gather outside the building, creating congestion, the mall's management told The Straits Times.
She added that she believed the mall was capable of taking in more visitors on weekends while enforcing safe-distancing measures, and urged the authorities to lift restrictions that have "caused great distress to the shop owners who have suffered immeasurable losses".
Mr Chong KS, 60, owner of eyewear shop Systems Optics in the same mall, said that while he understood the need for restrictions on Sundays, he felt measures could be lifted on Saturdays, which have typically seen fewer patrons at the mall than on weekdays even before restrictions were implemented.
Mr Chia said less rigid measures could be considered, such as not allowing patrons to enter once the number of patrons in the mall reached the allowable capacity.
This would incentivise groups of friends or families to enter compared with current restrictions, he said.
Others like Peninsula Plaza's management and Mr Stephen Chia, who owns 21st Century Employment agency in Lucky Plaza, said more could be done to educate the public on not loitering in and outside the malls unless needed.
Peninsula's management said it was grateful for additional safe-distancing ambassadors deployed by ESG to help with safe management. However, it said more needed to be done.
"Together with ESG, we had distributed leaflets to the foreign workers, in English and in their national language, on the odd-even entries and advised them not to come on those days which they are not able to enter, but to no avail.
"The odd-even restrictions will be fully effective if only those who are not supposed to come will stay away. Perhaps the authorities can convey this message to them."
Shop owners who previously spoke to ST about the restrictions in September said last week that they were at their wits' end.
Appeals by the shopkeepers to the authorities - including a paper petition signed by 167 shopkeepers - were either rejected or unanswered by the authorities, said Mr Ho Chee Yew, 45, who runs an eatery in Lucky Plaza.
STB and ESG said they would continue to monitor and review safe management measures at the two malls. The vast majority of businesses there have complied with the measures, they added.
"The health and safety of shoppers and mall tenants remain a key priority, and STB and ESG will not hesitate to take appropriate enforcement action for non-compliance, which may include fines, closure of business or prosecution," said the two agencies, while emphasising that the current restrictions have kept businesses open.
But with both agencies yet to commit to a date that restrictions will be eased, remaining open may not be feasible for businesses that have not broken even for months.
Said Ms Toe: "We are trying to find a way to survive. We also know the risks of Covid-19, and nobody wants to get it, but without income, how will we survive?"
This article was first published in The Straits Times.