Hair salons, optical shops and even some food outlets like bubble tea shops may fall into the grey area between what is considered essential and what is not amid the coronavirus outbreak, observers said.
This comes as National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force dealing with the Covid-19 crisis, said on Tuesday that the list of companies classified as providing essential services will be further shortened to stem the spread of the virus.
Associate Professor Lawrence Loh from the National University of Singapore Business School said that while companies currently on the list provide basic essentials such as food and services like safety and waste management, there is a possibility of a “haircut”, if the authorities go through the list with a “fine-tooth comb”.
“There are many shades of grey; bubble tea shops are one example that has been hotly debated online – bubble tea might be essential to some, but not essential to others,” said Prof Loh. “The main thing when deciding whether a service should be trimmed from the list is to ask: If we don’t have it, will it disrupt your life so severely that it’ll affect your survival? It’s a delicate trade-off and balance.”
But he noted that it is important to both shorten the list of shops providing essential services and limit the number of people going out for these services – that is, to curtail both supply and demand.
A spokesman for the Singapore Retailers Association told The Straits Times that the move is a “necessary evil to help bring Singapore out of this conundrum”.
“If other countries have survived and are surviving with a full lockdown with the exception of key essential services… there is no reason why Singapore cannot,” she said.
Restaurateur Loh Lik Peng of the Unlisted Collection group, who owns restaurants such as Burnt Ends, Meatsmith and Pollen, does not think that food and beverage outlets serving cooked food will be asked to close.
“If restaurants and hawkers are closed, it’ll have the unintended effect of driving people to the supermarkets and markets as they’ll have to cook at home,” said Mr Loh.
Food and beverage outlets, including hawker centres, foodcourts and restaurants, are now operating on a takeaway and delivery model.
One way to further shorten the list is to take a closer look at the F&B businesses that are in operation. But it will be a challenge, added Mr Loh.
“It’s quite hard to choose which F&B business is essential and which is not. It’s arguable that cake shops are essential because do you really need cakes to survive? But what makes your fast-food chains like KFC or your wonton mee stall essential?”
Ms Lim Xiu Ru, a lecturer at Singapore Polytechnic’s School of Business, said some possible cuts on the retail business front could include hair salons, optical shops and laundry services, which are currently allowed to continue to operate.
Hardware stores, vets’ services and pet supply stores are also among the small list of retail and service outlets allowed to remain open.
“If trimming the list of businesses leads to reducing the number of people going out, we’ll be on the road to recovery more quickly. And these retail businesses, which have already been negatively affected for quite some time, can recover more quickly,” said Ms Lim.
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