SINGAPORE – From spaced-out queues to enter malls to the use of alternate stools at hawker centres, safe distancing was largely in place across the island on Friday (March 27), as strict new regulations kicked in to limit crowds and minimise close contact in public areas.
The temporary closure of entertainment venues did little to deter Singaporeans from venturing out, with healthy crowds observed at malls, hawker centres and supermarkets.
Crowd control measures were in full force at several malls The Straits Times visited, with most sealing the majority of their entrances, including underpasses to MRT stations and other buildings, to control traffic flow.
Starting Friday, malls, attractions and other public venues have had to limit their capacity and disperse groups of more than 10 or face penalties if they are found to have been a place of transmission for Covid-19.
Those who intentionally sit less than 1m away from another person in a public place or on a fixed seat marked as not to be occupied or who stand in a queue less than the same distance away from another person will now also be guilty of an offence.
If convicted, they can be fined up to $10,000, jailed for up to six months, or both, under updates to the Infectious Diseases Act published in the Government Gazette on Thursday (March 26) night.
Those out and about on Friday said they were adapting well to the minor inconveniences caused by the new rules, though they pointed out gaps in some of the measures and on public transport.
At Sembawang Hills Food Centre, most of the lunchtime crowd was seen following the alternate-seating arrangements.
But engineer Tan Chin Lee, 40, who sat next to her two colleagues, noted that leaving a seat empty between them would not be enough to form a 1m gap.
The trio added that spacing out after they had already arrived together “didn’t make sense”.
Malls and standalone stores, already hit by slower footfall over the last two months, have had to reduce their operating capacity to avoid having more than one person per 16 sq m of usable space at any time.
While they declined to reveal by how much they have had to reduce capacity, operators said they have had to take drastic steps to comply, such as sealing key entrances, closing carparks and deploying extra manpower to count visitor numbers.
Events, atrium sales and performances have also been suspended.
In Orchard Road on Friday afternoon, crowds filled the ground-level walkway between Ngee Ann City and Wisma Atria as the underpass had been shut.
Guards at designated mall entrances waved shoppers in and out, some using handheld counters to keep tally. Empty atriums and shuttered cinemas and arcades aside, however, it was business as usual.
A spokesman for Mapletree Commercial Trust said that 11 employees of VivoCity anchor tenant Golden Village, which will have to close until at least April 30, will be redeployed to serve as “social-distancing ambassadors”. They will advise shoppers on safe social distancing as well as disperse groups of more than 10, a spokesman said.
Meanwhile, VivoCity’s above-ground multi-storey carpark is shut to mitigate crowd density.
Furniture store Ikea said that with strict limits on the number of concurrent visitors allowed and limited waiting areas, “we will unfortunately have to turn people away once we reach capacity in our queues”.
“We expect delays during peak periods – particularly weekend afternoons – and ask our visitors to be understanding,” a spokesman said.
Enterprise Singapore and the Singapore Tourism Board said in a joint statement on Friday night that they were heartened that malls have been able to implement safe distancing measures within a short time frame.
“That said, we strongly encourage Singaporeans to make trips to malls only if they need to get essentials,” they said.
When ST visited Nex shopping mall in Serangoon at 2pm on Friday, long queues were seen at its three main entrances.
Twenty-four other entrance points, including those that connect the mall to the Serangoon MRT station, have been closed to reduce operating capacity to a “few thousands shoppers” at any one time, said Nex senior marketing manager Doreen Yeo.
The mall, which is open 24 hours, usually sees around 100,000 visitors a day.
“We’ve drastically reduced the number of people in the mall. It’s the first day, so we’re still learning as we go but most shoppers understand why they’re asked to queue to enter,” said Ms Yeo.
While Nex staff reminded shoppers to adhere to the 1m-spaced floor markers while waiting to be allowed in, not all complied.
Student Wu Jingzhi, who was at the mall for lunch, said she waited about 10 minutes to get in. She estimated that only about half of the 70 people in line left an adequate gap between each other.
“There were not enough signs on the floor to indicate queueing position, so I guess people didn’t know where to stand,” said the 17-year-old.
Sales manager Lucy Wong, who was shopping at Ngee Ann City on Friday, pointed out that close contact cannot be avoided in crowded trains and buses.
“Inside the malls, they make sure there’s no crowding, but it’s pointless if the train you take there is packed,” said Ms Wong, 46.