Some nightlife businesses in Singapore struggle with no end in sight amid Covid-19

SINGAPORE - Kloud Karaoke Lounge has not been able to reopen for about half a year since the two-month circuit breaker that started in April due to government concerns that nightlife settings such as clubs and karaoke joints are high-risk areas for Covid-19 to spread.

And it might just remain that way permanently next month if things do not improve as the pandemic drags on and rental costs for the four-year-old karaoke lounge in Tanjong Katong snowball.

"Every day there is a delay, we have to bear with the rental," said Mr Ronald Ng, Kloud Karaoke Lounge's director. "Our landlords chase us for rental... and it's not a small sum... I don't know whether we can hold on until next month."

Things are getting dire for some nightlife operators, with no certainty on when they can reopen since government updates on Tuesday (Oct 20) suggest their businesses cannot resume even at the start of phase three of Singapore's reopening, which could happen by the end of the year.

And pivoting to other lines of business to remain afloat has been very challenging for many for various reasons.

In an August report, a poll by the Singapore Nightlife Business Association and the Singapore Entertainment Affiliation, which represents karaoke operators, showed that less than 10 per cent of respondents said they would survive to the end of October.

While larger businesses are able to bear the financial costs of retooling, smaller ones such as entertainment company Phat Cat Collective are feeling the pinch.

Co-founder Francesca Way and her colleagues have been working to turn two bars into food and beverage outlets.

Phat Cat Collective runs nineteen80 and Pinball Wizard, two retro-themed arcade bars in Tanjong Pagar and Rochor respectively.

Ms Way cited concerns in bearing the financial costs of pivoting, as well as difficulties in getting the proper licences.

"Building something like a kitchen set up costs over five figures," she added.

While the company began the transformation in August and applied for a change of licence in September, the complex nature of licensing and the fact that the process is managed by multiple agencies means things can be slow going.

For some larger businesses with more flexible multi-purpose spaces such as nightclub Zouk, switching to other lines of trade has been met with more success.

Still, Mr Andrew Li, the chief executive of Zouk Group, said that the process of getting the various licences from the authorities was challenging.

He cited the many agencies involved for converting Zouk's dance floor into a cinema at night, such as the Singapore Food Agency, Infocomm Media Development Authority, Ministry of Trade and Industry, Singapore Tourism Board, Urban Redevelopment Authority and Ministry of Health.

"Thankfully, the Government has been very supportive of our various pivots and we have done our best to alleviate any of their concerns as well as ensure we have adequate social distancing measures in place for each new concept," he added.

Zouk becomes a spin studio during the day.

Several karaoke operators, who are surviving on their dwindling reserves, also cite difficulties in getting approvals to convert their business licences and space constraints in changing up their trade.

Mr Ng, who is also chairman of the Singapore Entertainment Affiliation, which has over 100 members, said that pivoting was harder for karaoke joints as compared to pubs and bars in the nightlife industry due to their lack of food and beverage experience.

He said turning his karaoke lounge into an office for rent is not a long-term or viable solution because other places that can serve similar functions, like libraries, have opened up.

"Many people also work from home because of the pandemic so they wouldn't need these offices," he said.

Director of Teo Heng KTV Studio Jean Teo added that changing how the chain's premises can be used is not a straightforward process. If the use of the premises is changed and Teo Heng wants to later apply to reverse this to return to the karaoke business, there is a risk the application will be rejected.

Madam Teo said: "We don't sell food or alcohol, we only have facilities to sing so it's hard to convert into a restaurant because we are not specialised in it. We will have to knock down a few rooms to make a kitchen. Further investment (into this) will affect sustainability."

The popular karaoke chain has shuttered two of its 14 outlets since March 27, including its first outlet at Katong Shopping Centre.

With a soft spot for its employees, the company has paid them full salaries with Central Provident Fund (CPF) contributions for the past six months. However, high losses led to employer and employees jointly deciding to take a 50 per cent pay cut as of October to help tide the company over this difficult period. There are plans to repay this later.

Mr Ng said he had discussed with the Government how his business and others in the karaoke industry could reopen safely and help limit the spread of the coronavirus.

But he has been waiting for a response since a proposal was submitted in September.

The Government is also expected to announce a set of measures to support nightlife businesses this week, which have yet to be made as at Wednesday.

"The two options given by the Government is that if you don't pivot, you exit. But pivoting is not for the whole industry," he said.

Additional reporting by Wong Shiying