Latest extension of Covid-19 curbs leaves S'pore's retailers 'in deep despair, disrepair'

SINGAPORE – The latest month-long extension of Covid-19 restrictions, following round after round of tightened curbs this year, could sound the death knell for many businesses, said retailers and retail associations.

Singapore’s front-line business community is “in deep despair and disrepair”, said the Singapore Tenants United For Fairness (SGTUFF) group in a Facebook post on Wednesday (Oct 20).

The group was responding to the Government’s announcement earlier on Wednesday that Covid-19 restrictions – such as capping group sizes for social gatherings and dining in at two people – will be extended until Nov 21.

The extension comes as the healthcare system is at risk of being overwhelmed. On Wednesday, there were 3,862 new Covid-19 infections, and 18 deaths from complications linked to the virus.

In the statement on Facebook, SGTUFF said the extension “will sink the boat for many of us who have been barely hanging on”.

“Just this year alone, we have been badly hit by four waves of restrictions of increasing severity and negative impact to traffic and business,” said the statement. It added that the vast majority of business owners “will still have to dig deeper into whatever they have left in their own pockets to be able to pay for staff salaries, rentals and many other overheads”.

The executive director of Singapore Retailers Association, Ms Rose Tong, echoed the group’s sentiments, saying: “The retail sector is already in dire straits, and the latest announcement is going to (sound) the death knell for so many businesses. More retailers will be decimated and we anticipate potential job losses.”

On Wednesday, the Health Ministry also announced that the Government will offer wage support of 25 per cent under the extended Jobs Support Scheme (JSS) for sectors that are significantly affected by the continuing curbs. These include businesses in the food and beverage, retail, and gym and fitness sectors.

“We are grateful for handouts, but that’s not what retailers are looking for… we want to be able to do business,” said Ms Tong, adding that footfall has dropped drastically with every round of restrictions and safe management measures.

SGTUFF called for urgent help in several areas such as rental subsidies for four weeks, higher wage support of 50 per cent under the JSS instead of the current 25 per cent, and moratoriums on existing bank loans.

The group also noted that the recent opening of vaccinated travel lanes to overseas destinations “means we are now seeing more business outflow, due to locals travelling abroad, than inflow from foreign tourists”.

It added that this would be further compounded by the planned hike of goods and services tax (GST) from the current 7 per cent to 9 per cent.

“Over the next 12 months, front-line businesses will be further hit by the likely increase of GST to 9 per cent, further inflation of business costs, and increased wage costs due to the implementation of the Progressive Wage Model,” the group said.

However, Mr Kurt Wee, president of the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises, had more immediate concerns.

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Mr Wee hopes the Government can reassess some restrictions, such as allowing those in a family unit of five or six to dine together instead of being separated because of the two-person cap.

The business community’s high level of confidence in the Government’s Covid-19 strategy remains, he said, adding that it is “committed to coordinating with the Government, but we hope that more front-line businesses can have greater breathing room”.

He was also encouraged that the multi-ministry task force handling Covid-19 said the measures will be reviewed at the two-week mark and adjusted based on the virus situation in the community then.

“We remain committed to give active feedback to the Government and hope it can calibrate (the response) and is prepared to relax measures in one or two weeks’ time,” he said.

Retailers, however, are at a loss as to how to move forward.

“With each round of tightened measures, we see footfall plummeting, along with sales,” said Ms Gin Lee, founder and designer of home-grown fashion label GINLEE Studio. The label has outlets in Raffles City Shopping Centre, Great World and Tangs.

Home-grown fashion label GINLEE Studio’s outlet at Great World City. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

“It’s not just the reduced footfall, it’s also the drop in shoppers’ confidence… they have no events to go to and there’s less need to buy new clothes,” said Ms Lee.

“It’s been disappointing, I don’t know what else I can do to make a difference.”

Gyms and fitness studios, too, were frustrated by the extension of restrictions, but several remain optimistic. 

Classes at F45 Training Aljunied currently allow 12 to 15 people at a time, with a 3m distance between groups of two. This is down from the 20 to 24 people allowed earlier this year. 

Owner Ben Adams said: “Getting more members in would allow us to recover some revenue and survive as a business. But we keep on playing by the rules and we’re positive that the future is going to improve.”

Another gym, Body Fit Training Raffles, opened only in July this year. 

Its owner, Mr Ryan Choo, said opening a gym in this environment has been challenging. “But you just have to push through and find ways to keep the members and ourselves engaged,” he said. 

“Our mindset now is not to expect too much because you never know what’s going to happen.”

Experts such as Mr Guillaume Sachet, partner at KPMG in Singapore, said that the pandemic is a long-drawn affair and disruptions and closures are expected to happen consistently.

“Singapore’s retail and tourism sectors need to have made some clear decisions to pivot to other business models and diversify their channels and customer base,” said Mr Sachet, citing industries such as the meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions sector, which has moved into digital exhibitions to continue to engage the business community globally.

“Otherwise, it is certain that survival will be difficult regardless of relief measures given by the Government,” he said.

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