COVID-19 SPECIAL

Businesses know they must play a waiting game after circuit breaker ends

For three years, Mr Dylan Ong, owner of The Masses restaurant, which is known for its Asian-inspired French cuisine, had resisted providing a delivery option for customers who wanted to eat at home or at work. He believed food tasted best when eaten freshly prepared and on site at his Beach Road eatery.

But on March 22, he did a U-turn and decided to offer islandwide delivery, although without depending on any platform players such as Grab, whose costs he felt were unsustainable. He had seen the writing on the wall. That was the week restaurants here had to enact stricter safe distancing measures, taping down tables.

"I felt that if I didn't change, and if we ended up in a lockdown situation, it would take us a lot more work reaching out to vendors to get deliveries going," he says, referring to items he would have to buy, like takeaway containers and cutlery.

Despite his foresight, the start of circuit breaker measures on April 7 still led to "heavy bloodshed", he adds. Mr Ong saw business plummet 90 per cent in the first fortnight, although revenue has since recovered to about 40 per cent of pre-circuit breaker numbers.

Wage subsidies provided under the Jobs Support Scheme have been crucial in helping him keep his 10 staff employed full time, he says.

Like many retail and food and beverage (F&B) businesses here, Mr Ong says he cannot wait for phase two of Singapore's reopening - when F&B dining-in will be allowed.

Phase one begins on Tuesday.

"I'm trying to go on for as long as I can, but if eventually the well (of capital) dries up, I'll have no choice but to give up."

BROAD AGREEMENT ON PACE OF REOPENING

Despite the fact that firms are hurting and are just trying to hold on, there has been little unhappiness over the phased reopening plan the Government announced on May 19.

The 15 businesses and trade associations The Sunday Times spoke with are in broad agreement with the timeline for the Republic to return to a semblance of pre-circuit breaker normality.

Specialists Trade Alliance of Singapore (STAS) executive director Eddy Lau notes that its members are generally receptive to the cautious reopening, particularly given the high levels of infections among foreign workers in dormitories.

STAS represents specialist contractors and suppliers in the building and construction industry.

TOUGH TASK

It is always going to be a delicate balance and will always look imbalanced from different angles. Overall, it is a difficult decision and even if it is correct today, it may not be tomorrow, and even if it is fair to most, it will not be to some.

SINGAPORE NIGHTLIFE BUSINESS ASSOCIATION PRESIDENT JOSEPH ONG, on the tightrope walk that is a safe and speedy reopening.

MORE CLARITY, PLEASE

Basically, restaurants here need good clarity on how we are meant to operate, such that there's a standard that we can all adhere to, and we can prepare for.

CREATIVE EATERIES CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER BONNIE WONG, who is also a Restaurant Association of Singapore committee member.

While nightlife businesses were among the first to be closed and are set to be among the last to reopen - given the nature of their activities - Singapore Nightlife Business Association (SNBA) president Joseph Ong says its members agree with the Government on the need to be cautious in reopening "as it is for the greater public welfare".

"We have been working closely with the relevant authorities to help prepare businesses for the reopening so they can have the various safety measures in place, as advised by government agencies, once businesses reopen," he says.

He hopes, though, that more support, such as rental relief and a higher tier of Jobs Support Scheme payouts, can be given to businesses that have to stay closed.

Some businesses tell Insight they were initially frustrated when the multi-ministry task force on Covid-19 at first said that phase two would come four to six weeks after the circuit breaker lifts.

But they breathed a sigh of relief when the task force said last Thursday that the Government would decide by the middle of next month whether to move into phase two, which could happen by the end of that month, provided community transmission remained low and stable.

"In the past week, the number of positive Covid-19 (community) cases was so low that reopening in four to six weeks seemed overly cautious," says Ms Bonnie Wong, chief operating officer of restaurant group Creative Eateries.

"So when I heard the Government is prepared to relook this in the middle of June, I was encouraged."

DELICATE BALANCE

Business owners say that few within their industry disagree with National Development Minister and task force co-chair Lawrence Wong, who has said that Singapore's approach has been to prioritise both lives and livelihoods - the implication being it is finding a way to balance both at the same time.

A recent survey by the Singapore Manufacturing Federation, for instance, found that nearly two-thirds of respondents' main concern heading into next month was how to bring up production levels in a safe way for their employees.

After all, most firms know a speedy reopening is of little use if it leads to another circuit breaker and general shutdown, says Mr Kurt Wee, president of the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises.

While business owners say they are under no illusion that customer volume would return to pre-pandemic numbers, an earlier reopening would strengthen their cash flow and increase their firms' chances of survival.

Harry's International chief executive Nasen Thiagarajan says delivery and takeaway in the last few months generated just 10 per cent of the usual revenue at its eponymous chain of watering holes.

Once the outlets can reopen, Mr Thiagarajan says, the home-grown chain projects initial revenue to hit 50 per cent of pre-Covid days, with hopes of hitting 70 per cent by the last quarter of this year.

"Any further postponement from dine-in being allowed come July 1 would see our business in a critical financial situation where some of our stores will have to close and further job losses materialise."

SNBA's Mr Ong says other countries' experience shows the tightrope walk that is a safe and speedy reopening.

"It is always going to be a delicate balance and will always look imbalanced from different angles," adds Mr Ong, who is also the boss of 1-Group, which operates clubs such as Altimate.

"Overall, it is a difficult decision and even if it is correct today, it may not be tomorrow, and even if it is fair to most, it will not be to some."

A TIME OF INNOVATION

Despite the uncertainty wrought by Covid-19, some firms have found new revenue streams and discovered opportunities in adversity.

Ms Ratianah Tahir, who runs made-to-measure kebaya maker Ratianah Boutique, says her business has taken a massive hit, since her Bussorah Street store caters largely to a walk-in and tourist clientele.

"My regulars usually buy new clothes for Hari Raya, but this year where got Raya mood?" she said when interviewed earlier. "There's no chance for visiting, so there's no reason for dressing up."

But as mask wearing in public began to be encouraged, Ms Ratianah hit on the idea of making children's face masks out of the colourful batik cloth she usually uses for her kebayas, to be given free to children in need. Upon seeing pictures of the masks, her regulars pleaded with her to make some for sale. To date, over 1,000 masks have been hand-sewn by her team of tailors.

"That gives my tailors some work to do, rather than nothing. It's not the main business... but the masks are helping a bit."

The pandemic has also pushed home-grown watch winder maker Orient Crown to deepen its online presence, says managing director Waleed Abumazen.

The firm, whose main market is the well-heeled traveller - it has two outlets at Marina Bay Sands and one at Jewel Changi Airport - overhauled its website earlier this year to beef up its e-commerce capabilities, and installed a WhatsApp widget on its landing page so prospective clients can speak directly with one of its sales associates. "For customers who are in the market for big-ticket items, many prefer to have the retail experience," says Mr Waleed.

"They want to listen to our sales people advise them on their needs, and discuss customisation options.

"I've tried to replicate that online, and I found that some customers feel more comfortable communicating via WhatsApp messages in the beginning to get more information before they decide."

Monthly online sales have now quintupled to about 75 orders, even though it is still a fraction of his pre-pandemic sales.

Amid the pandemic, The Masses' Mr Ong also hit on the idea of providing takeaway siobak (roasted pork belly) that could keep for up to one year.

Since perfecting the recipe and process for blast-chilling, Mr Ong says he has sold over 3,000 slabs of the roast meat in just over a month at $38 for a box of three slabs.

NEED FOR GREATER CLARITY

But such innovations cannot take the place of a full resumption of business, and some in the business community are calling for greater clarity in the measures needed to prepare for a full-fledged reopening.

Creative Eateries' Ms Wong recalls how there was a mad scramble for tape when stricter safe distancing measures were announced.

Shortages of products companies need to prepare for a safe reopening can be prevented if the Government provides enough lead time, she says, adding that there is also a lack of clarity about whether face shields can be used by F&B staff once phase two starts.

While the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) said in an advisory last month that food handlers can wear either masks or face shields, the Government said in updated guidelines last week that F&B workers have to wear a face mask instead of a face shield.

"Basically, restaurants here need good clarity on how we are meant to operate, such that there's a standard that we can all adhere to, and we can prepare for," says Ms Wong, who is also a Restaurant Association of Singapore committee member.

"This guidance from the Government must come sooner such that everyone has time to prepare, and if (the review for) opening is in two weeks, then it means that we should be buying things now."

Last Thursday, Mr Wong, the task force co-chair, said the authorities will begin to talk with these businesses to ensure they have the relevant safeguards in place.

Others said the need for clarity extends across sectors.

Dr Farshad Shishehchian, who is CEO of Blue Aqua International group, notes that sectors overseen by multiple government agencies have the unenviable task of having to comply with ever more complicated regulations that appear to contradict one another.

In recent weeks, he says, his aquaculture business has received "hundreds of e-mails and communications" from agencies such as SFA, the Ministry of Manpower and the Building and Construction Authority.

Construction work at his fish farm in Lim Chu Kang is 90 per cent completed, but Dr Farshad says he is doubtful that work can resume any time soon, given stringent rules on segregated teams, contact tracing and other safeguards for the sector to resume work come Tuesday.

"I appreciate that the Government is helping us to always stay safe - the intention is very good, and I don't think they've done anything wrong so far," he says.

"But sometimes we have too many rules."

While some businesses say they would like greater monetary support in the coming months, there is also broad satisfaction with the help given so far.

For The Masses' Mr Ong, the almost $100 billion budgeted by the Government this year to fight Covid-19 has vindicated the Republic's approach to judicious use of public funds and saving for a rainy day.

"The greatest thing I've learnt during this period is to be like the Government - have reserves," he says. "Because if you have no reserves, your business literally dies."