The Government is seeking to enforce stricter social distancing measures and may even impose “escalating penalties” to those found to be non-compliant, in the wake of 40 new COVID-19 cases recorded in Singapore on Fri evening (20 Mar).
National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, co-chairman of the task force on COVID-19, told a press conference on Fri that requiring the suspension of all events and gatherings with 250 or more attendees at a single time is a part of “a range of very stringent, safe distancing measures” put in place to limit further local transmission of COVID-19.
The new measure is an extension of an earlier one, which called for ticketed cultural, sports and entertainment events to be limited to fewer than 250 participants.
Mr Wong said that while the new measure “will lead to some inconvenience”, such a stringent measure could “give us better control over the situation and enable us to suppress and slow down the spread of the virus”.
“They should lead to a change in outcomes from where we are today. We cannot continue with business-as-usual activities,” he stressed.
The limitation on participant size applies does not only to public entertainment venues, but also to private gatherings such as weddings and parties, according to the multi-ministry taskforce.
“We knew this was going to be disruptive, so we started with an advisory so people could get used to it. But this is no longer an advisory,” Mr Wong said.
“Now, we are going to work through all the event venue operators, whether it’s a hotel or town council renting out a multi-purpose hall, to make sure that all of these conditions are fulfilled,” he added.
The Ministry of Health (MOH) on Fri said that “organisers and event venue operators are required to implement the necessary precautionary measures to ensure separation of at least a metre between participants”.
“These measures include spaced seating at events, and reducing mingling of participants such as during meal times,” said MOH.
Other requirements include:
- Improving ventilation and advising participants to reduce contact with others;
- Putting in place temperature and health screening measures, and turning away persons who are unwell; and
- Putting in place measures to facilitate contact tracing if needed, such as obtaining contact details of participants.
One-metre minimum distance between people in public places
Another heightened social distancing measure, said Mr Wong, is to ensure that operators of venues in public places adopt the separation of at least one metre between customers.
MOH recommended the following steps:
- Queues on premises such as outside restaurants and retail stores should be kept fast-moving, which could be done by ensuring that all checkout counters are open, and encouraging self-checkout to minimise contact with counter staff. Lines should clearly be marked to help people follow the appropriate distancing;
- Food and beverage venues should maintain a distance of at least one metre between tables, and between seats. Where seats are fixed, including our hawker centres, operators should ensure alternate seats are marked out. Individuals and family members who wish to seat together should continue to do so, but there should be a safe distance maintained between different groups; and
- Entertainment venues and attractions such as cinemas/theatres, theme parks, casinos, museums and galleries should adopt measures appropriate to their venue to ensure separation of at least a metre amongst patrons. This could include reducing operating capacity to provide more spacing, installing floor markers at queuing areas, and adopting chequerboard or alternate seating.
The Government, said Mr Wong, has been working with all F&B outlets to ensure that these measures are enforced.
“Whether it is a hawker centre, coffee shop or restaurant, there will be a safe distance between diners. And through licensing, we will enforce this,” he said.
Should the eateries be operating at full capacity due to the limited seating, Mr Wong encouraged members of the public to bring home the food they ordered instead.
“Doing this does not mean that everyone has to cook and eat at home – you can still go out and support your favourite hawker stall or restaurant. But if the place is full now because of more limited capacity, then dabao – buy takeaway, bring it back home to eat.
“So it does not mean you have to cook all the time – you can still go out and support our local businesses, buy food, take away for home,” said Mr Wong.
While he acknowledged that the above measures “will have significant costs to our F&B operators who are already facing very difficult times during this crisis”, Mr Wong stressed that such measures are “a necessary precaution which we have to put in place to protect Singaporeans and the people around us”.
Employers encouraged to allow telecommuting, work-from-home arrangements and staggered working hours for employees
Mr Wong said that another measure that should be taken to promote increased social distancing is for employers to implement measures to reduce interactions of close physical proximity between workers.
Thus, measures such as telecommuting to allow employees to work from home and replacing physical meetings with teleconferencing should be adopted by employers whenever possible, he said.
However, for employees whose job scope does not allow for a work-from-home arrangement, one of the measures Mr Wong said employers should undertake is applying staggered working hours.
MOH recommended the implementation of staggered working hours for both reporting and ending times, with minimally three one-hourly blocks and no more than 50 per cent of total employees reporting to work within each one-hour block.
“Where possible, reporting and ending times should not coincide with peak-hour travel, especially if employees require the use of public transport,” said the Ministry.
Mr Wong noted that there are “different hours for which they can come and leave the office, preferably not during the peak period for transport”.
“So if we do that, there will be more people working from home, and we can also reduce the load on public transport,” he said.
Other measures called upon by MOH for employers include providing physical spacing of at least one metre apart between work stations and in meeting rooms, shortening the duration and downsizing the capacity of meetings, and postponing non-critical work events.
“For critical work events that cannot be deferred, employers must limit these to no more than 250 participants at any point in time and put in place measures to ensure separation of at least a metre between participants. These include meals and mingling during the event,” said MOH.
MOH noted that the above requirements and advisories for events, gatherings, workplaces and public venues “will be subject to further review based on the global and local situation”.
All senior-centric activities to be suspended for two weeks until 7 Apr
Following the World Health Organization (WHO)’s findings that the elderly are susceptible to severe COVID-19 infection, the multi-ministry taskforce said that it will be taking extra precautions to safeguard the wellbeing of senior citizens in Singapore.
MOH said that the Government will extend the suspension of all senior-centric activities at community clubs, residents’ committees, Senior Activity Centres, Active Ageing Hubs, CREST Centres, Health Promotion Board and ActiveSG for another two weeks until 7 Apr.
National Silver Academy (NSA) courses and volunteer programmes administered by the Council for Third Age have also been suspended for the same period, said the Ministry.
“In addition, all organisers of activities that involve physical interactions amongst seniors should suspend such activities from 22 March to 7 April. These include senior-centric courses, activities and interest groups, as well as events, performances, and other gatherings targeted at seniors,” said MOH.
Organisers of senior-centric events are also expected to carry out “extra precautions” to prepare for the resumption of organised activities after the suspension ends.
“We encourage seniors to continue to be active during this period. Organisers of senior-centric activities are encouraged to organise activities which do not require close contact between seniors, such as by using online platforms.
“For example, seniors may tap on a new video series broadcast on zaobao.sg that brings exercise, singing and cooking activities online for them. Conducted by trainers from the People’s Association (PA), the video series enables active seniors to participate in these activities in the comfort of their own home,” said MOH.
MOH also advised seniors to avoid crowded places as much as possible, on top of maintaining good personal hygiene and seeing a doctor when they feel unwell.
“Anyone interacting with seniors should also take extra care with personal hygiene. They should avoid interacting with seniors when they are unwell,” said MOH.
Mr Wong stressed the importance of discipline and cooperation among Singaporeans in abiding by the heightened social distancing measures.
“We need Singaporeans to cooperate. We will be enforcing these rules. It will lead to some inconvenience, but we will need Singaporeans to cooperate and take responsibility for these changes.
“If we are all disciplined about this, it will give us better control over the situation, and enable us to suppress and slow down the spread of the virus.
“So we hope all Singaporeans will work with us – do our part to protect ourselves, our families, our friends and the people around us,” he said.
The Government, said Mr Wong, will not hesitate to resort to “escalating penalties” such as issuing warnings, fines and revocation of licences against errant entities.
“If there is a need, we can also through the Infectious Diseases Act to prosecute egregious cases,” he said.
Mr Wong however acknowledged that such measures may be more difficult to “impose or enforce for private gatherings”.
“If somebody has a party in their home, I wouldn’t even know. And that’s why we say not everything can be done through government measures.
“Singaporeans have to take responsibility for your private get-togethers. Do it in smaller groups. Don’t do them so frequently,” he said.
No lockdown in S’pore this weekend, contrary to rumours
Touching on rumours that there will be a lockdown in Singapore some time this weekend, Mr Wong said that such rumours are untrue.
“There is a rumour going around on WhatsApp – some of you may have heard the rumour – that there is going to be a lockdown in Singapore this weekend. Can I just make it very clear? There is no lockdown,” said Mr Wong.
“I don’t know how the rumours started … It could be because we have been pursuing these measures and have been talking to many venue operators already about all the safe distancing measures that we want to put in place,” he added.
“It could be because of that, but this does not constitute a lockdown. But it certainly means that all of these things that we are doing … are a significant step up in our measures,” said Mr Wong.
The scaled-up social distancing measures, said Mr Wong, should result in “fewer people out and about”.
“It should lead to fewer crowded places, and it should lead to a reduction in activities that involve close contact and that provide potential vectors for transmission of the virus,” said the minister.
A WhatsApp message by Gov.sg stated that “false rumours” were circulating, which claimed that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was set to address the nation on Fri night to announce a lockdown.
“The Prime Minister is not addressing the nation tonight, nor is Singapore locking down,” the government message read yesterday.
Earlier on Wed, Mr Wong said that the country’s upcoming General Election (GE) will “very likely” happen while in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak.
The next GE must be held by 15 Apr next year.
Speaking to CNBC’s Squawk Box Asia, Mr Wong explained that a number of medical experts have revealed that the virus may not go away any time soon. This means that the world’s fight against the deadly novel coronavirus could “drag on for a year and beyond a year,” he said.
“So, whatever the timing of the election, because it has to be held by April 2021, it is very likely that it will have to be held when COVID-19 is still circulating in our midst – that’s the reality,” said Mr Wong, who is also Singapore’s second finance minister.
However, the Government has yet to make any declaration regarding the matter.
Speculations on a snap election have arisen after the release of the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee report on 15 Mar as observers have predicted the election to be held within the next month.