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Forced to Remain Closed Even After Phase 3 – The Death of Singapore’s Nightlife Scene is Looming
Article updated on 9th November 2020
Owners of bars, karaoke lounges and clubs must be despairing at the moment.
The future's looking bleak indeed as last week, Education Minister Lawrence Wong, speaking in his capacity as co-chair of the government’s Multi-Ministry Taskforce on Covid-19, announced that the nightlife industry will not be allowed to reopen even after Singapore enters Phase 3 of its reopening.
F&B businesses have been allowed to resume dine-in services since June, and can even serve alcohol and allow its consumption within their premises until 10.30pm. Meanwhile, even cruise liners have been allowed to offer cruise packages, albeit with no port of call. However, for the entertainment scene, nightlife venues are expected to remain closed for the conceivable future.
An Industry Affected Most by Covid-19
One can understand the government’s reasoning. “We know these are higher risk settings. The nature of the activities themselves, of such activities, means that you have people socialising in close contact, often in a small enclosed space and risk is very much higher," said Mr Wong.
Quite simply, the nature of nightlife activities puts those who partake in them closer to the edge of socially irresponsible behaviour than most other activities. And now is not the time to take such risks.
But this necessary evil has put nightlife venue operators in dire straits. Back in August, a poll by the Singapore Nightlife Business Association and the Singapore Entertainment Affiliation indicated that less than 10 percent of respondents felt they could survive till the end of October should the closures persist. We are now very much heading past this cut-off point. Some of the most popular establishments have already been forced to shutter for good.
Fighting to Stay Open
Many of these nightlife venues are attempting to pivot temporarily to other lines of business to remain afloat. Zouk, one of Singapore’s most iconic nightclubs, has converted its dance floor into a spin studio by day and cinema by night. Other venues such as Marquee are staying relevant through virtual events, live streaming their DJ sets.
The most popular choice of conversion appears to be F&B. Cocktails and drinks delivery services are being set up. Dine-in options are trickier, but some have managed it too; Zouk’s Capital lounge is now Capital Kitchen, a pop-up restaurant.
However, not all such establishments are able to recalibrate their business this way, especially the smaller ones for whom the costs could be too prohibitive. Applying for new licenses is not so easy. Retraining staff takes time. Setting up a kitchen from where there was none before also requires a lot of investment, provided there is even space to accommodate one. And ultimately, purveyors of nightlife activities don’t necessarily have the requisite food and beverage experience and simply might not be very good at running such businesses.
Even if it does work out, having invested so heavily in altering the infrastructure of their enterprise, would nightlife venues be able to revert back when the coronavirus has passed?
Is There No Way Back?
The government is standing firm. Assistance will be provided to nightlife venue operators who wish to exit the industry and make a transition to other forms of business, although details are still pending. Meanwhile, a few pilot schemes may be advanced to test the viability of re-opening some nightlife venues but with additional requirements and certainly much more stringent safety measures.
But it is hard to imagine many business owners wanting to earn such a pyrrhic victory; safe, socially distanced, and isolated clubbing simply makes no sense.
All of which begs the sobering question: what will be left of the nightlife scene by the time Covid-19 finally blows over? Will there even be one?
And yet, can the urban nightlife - once such a bustling scene in our metropolitan city - really simply melt away willingly? The fear is that the need to socialise and mingle, to party, to relax, to let loose in a cascade of loud music and alcohol would be too strong to resist, particularly for the urban youth. And so, if regular supervised venues are unavailable, perhaps illegal unregulated ones will take their place instead.
This has already manifested itself in other countries. In the UK, for example, despite a death toll of more than 45,000, illegal parties and unlicensed music events have been proving almost impossible to police as they spring up and proliferate through word of mouth and social media. Attempts to disperse these gatherings often resulted in chaos and violence, which is unproductive to say the least.
Singapore traditionally possesses a very high amount of social order, and our limited geography does make it easier to police. Our contact tracing measures are also more extensive, and set to be even more all-encompassing. Nevertheless, it would be decidedly unhelpful to foster a host of disaffected youth onto society, troubled as we already are.
Technology May Once Again be Key
Perhaps a compromise is to be found in technology, seemingly the antidote to all social-distancing woes. While virtual meetings for work and social gatherings have already been popular since pre-Covid times, virtual raves (or cloud raves) appear to be a newer phenomenon but has already shown some signs of success
Back in February, China, which was the first country to suffer the coronavirus outbreak, was already going through extensive social distancing measures. Chinese nightclubs began live-streaming DJ sets on China App dou yin, with very positive turnouts. Almost 2.3 million people joined Beijing club SIR TEEN’s cloud rave. It is also possible to be highly profitable — Shanghai nightclub TAXX earned US$104,000 in tips paid through the app during a single Livestream that gained 71,000 views. Electric Daisy Circus, the largest electronic dance music (EDM) dance festival in the US, held a virtual rave-a-thon featuring many leading international EDM DJs to great success.
Would this option translate to similar success in Singapore? As stated, some nightlife venues in Singapore have already begun live streaming events. Perhaps it is simply a matter of monetising them.
Whatever the case, it is clear that the nightlife scene is suffering as badly as any industry can be in this coronavirus pandemic, and solutions will need to be thought of quickly.
**Update: New Pilot Programme for Nightlife Businesses**
The Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) and the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) have announced on 6 November 2020 that a "limited number" of nightlife establishments will be allowed to reopen with COVID-19 safety measures in place under a pilot programme.
Those taking part must adopt safe management measures. These include mandating that all customers wear masks at all times, even when on the dance floor or singing. The only exception to this is for eating and drinking. In addition, alcohol cannot be sold, served, or consumed after 10.30pm.
For karaoke lounges and nightclubs, all patrons must also undergo a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test or an antigen rapid test (ART) and test negative for COVID-19 24 hours prior to the end of the activity at the establishment. Pre-event testing may be implemented on-site by the establishments taking part in the pilot programme. Alternatively, customers may get their tests done at clinics prior to their visit.
All common areas and rooms used for activities must also be under CCTV monitoring, and recordings must be stored for at least 28 days, for regular reviews by the enforcement agencies to check for compliance with safe management measures.
The pilot for pubs and bars will start by December and last for two months. Meanwhile, pilots for karaoke lounges and nightclubs will only begin in January 2021 and last for three months.
We previously opined that nightlife venues joining such programmes in order to re-open would be a pyrrhic victory. We stand by this opinion.
The non-consumption of alcohol after 10.30pm, the need to wear masks while dancing or singing, and the requirement to test negative for Covid-19 at great personal financial cost; all these makes this experience the antithesis of a fun night out.
Grants for Nightlife Establishments
Perhaps aware that these measures might be too unpopular to attract returning customers, the authorities are providing aid to assist nightlife establishments in pivoting to other industries.
The application process for nightlife establishments to pivot to F&B operations are being simplified. Meanwhile, from now until 31 March 2021, nightlife establishments which wish to pivot to other permissible activities may apply for a grant of up to S$50,000 from Enterprise Singapore to defray qualifying costs incurred during the pivoting process, such as equipment and third-party consultancy costs.
In addition, nightlife establishments exiting the industry can also apply to ESG from now until 31 March 2021, for an ex-gratia payment of S$30,000 to defray the costs of the cessation of business.
For more information on the financial support measures offered and how to apply for them, one may contact the Singapore Nightlife Business Association (SNBA) at firstname.lastname@example.org.