Coffee shops put off by high cost of implementing vaccination checks to allow 5 diners to sit together
The high cost of implementing Covid-19 vaccination checks has deterred many coffee shop operators from allowing groups of up to five to dine on their premises.
Of the 2,200 coffee shops and canteens in Singapore, only 112 allow up to five fully vaccinated customers to dine in, according to the Singapore Food Agency.
In contrast, almost all of the 110 hawker centres managed by the National Environment Agency (NEA) or NEA-appointed operators allow groups of five people to eat together.
Coffee shop associations and stallholders said it can cost them at least a few thousand dollars a month to hire staff to implement such checks.
Logistical challenges, such as having to consider the layout of the coffee shop when cordoning off certain areas, are another obstacle.
Since Nov 23, coffee shops with the necessary control measures can allow groups of up to five fully vaccinated people to dine in.
To do so, they must control access by cordoning off areas and have dedicated entry points. At these entry points, they must also check the vaccination status of all patrons, and differentiate those who are fully vaccinated and dining in.
Mr Hong Poh Hin, the vice-chairman of the Foochow Coffee Restaurant and Bar Merchants Association, said many of the larger coffee shops have indoor and outdoor seating areas usually separated by a corridor or a walkway, which is also used by residents in the neighbourhood.
As coffee shops are not allowed to seal off these common areas, they must cordon off their indoor and outdoor areas separately, and station someone at each of these entrances. Hiring one person would cost them about $2,000 a month.
He said: "Some of the coffee shop operators would want to pass on some of the cost to their stallholders. But not all stallholders would agree because the zi char stalls would benefit the most from larger groups."
But these larger groups, such as families, tend to patronise the coffee shops only on weekends. Many operators feel that the uptick in business does not justify the additional cost, Mr Hong said.
His association represents about 400 coffee shops.
For coffee shops with very popular stalls, barricading the indoor seating area would also be difficult as queues for such stalls can sometimes extend beyond the area.
Mr Kenneth Lee, vice-chairman of Kheng Keow Coffee Merchants Restaurant and Bar Owners Association, said: "Covid-19 is not something that will last for a month or two. We don't know when the pandemic is going to end. So in the long run, all these extra costs will add to our operating expenses.
"Sooner or later, the operators and stallholders will not be able to absorb them and we will have to pass them down to consumers."
Coffee shops also run the risk of getting fined or suspended if they do not enforce these vaccinated-differentiated measures properly.
With the additional cost being too much to bear, most operators have decided to wait and see if they can hold out, said Mr Lee.
But coffee shops that stick to only allowing dining for two people also have to grapple with slower business, with diners preferring to go to eateries where they can sit in larger groups.
Ms Hasria Hashim, who sells Malay food at Kim San Leng coffee shop in Tampines, said she has seen a 40 per cent drop in customers compared with when larger groups were allowed.
Competition is tough as there are other coffee shops, and the nearby Tampines Round Market and Food Centre allows groups of five to sit together, she said.
"We felt that it is unfair because not all coffee shops have the manpower. Many people are vaccinated, so I don't see an issue with our coffee shop allowing five people to dine in together."
Some stallholders also have to remind patrons to abide by the rules.
Ms Huang Ya Dong, a drink stall assistant at a coffee shop in Toa Payoh, said she has come across unhappy and difficult customers who do not want to follow the rules.
"There are some difficult customers who would tell us, 'Do you expect me to sit on the floor?' when we ask them to sit no more than two per table. We usually have to explain the regulations to them again, mention the fines they would incur, and take photos of them if needed."
- Additional reporting by Kolette Lim and John Elijah Gan