SINGAPORE, Jan 14 — Almost all 110 hawker centres presently managed by the National Environment Agency (NEA) or its appointed operators have rolled out measures to allow groups of five people to eat together. However, to date, only a small proportion (about 5 per cent) of the 2,200 coffee shops and canteens run by private operators have done so.

This means that there are still many coffee shops and canteens that allow patrons to dine only in pairs. These will include privately operated canteens, such as those in certain schools or workplaces, that are licensed by the Singapore Food Agency (SFA).

Some coffee shops told TODAY that labour constraints and the layout of the premises were among the difficulties they face in checking the vaccination status of customers and monitoring their entry and exit.

Since November 23 last year, hawker centres and coffee shops have been allowed to let groups of up to five vaccinated people from different households dine together on their premises — provided that these eating places can control the access of patrons and check the customers' vaccination status.

They must also put up posters informing patrons that only fully vaccinated patrons are allowed to have their meals together.

NEA, which manages the majority of hawker centres here, said that almost all 110 of the food centres under it are allowing groups of five to eat there.

The rule of five does not apply to hawker centres that are undergoing spring-cleaning works or scheduled repairs and redecoration.

This would be Dunman Food Centre for now, as it is undergoing repairs and redecoration until the end of next month.

As for coffee shops and canteens, SFA’s website lists 112 of these places that allow five fully vaccinated patrons to sit and eat together. This is out of about 2,200 premises with coffee shop, eating house and canteen licences.

Coffee shops such as one that TODAY visited at Fernvale in Sengkang West yesterday (January 13) said that there was just not enough manpower to carry out the vaccine-related infection controls, especially during peak periods.

Serene Tan, the supervisor of the coffee shop, said: “During busy times, we cannot do everything and it’s hard to check every table.

“We don’t have enough people and the coffee shop is so big. The workers are already struggling because they also need to make sure the trays are cleared,” she added.

Despite the current regulations limiting people to dine there in pairs, customers continued to flout the rules, Tan added.

She recalled several instances where customers, after being fined by the authorities for eating together in bigger groups, blamed the stall owners for not informing them of the regulations.

In another instance, a group of three women eating together claimed that they “forgot” about the restrictions after Tan approached them to remind them of the safety measures.

The only time groups of five may be allowed to eat at the coffee shop at Fernvale is on January 29, the weekend before Chinese New Year on February 1. However, this is only if they patronise one designated stall — a tze char stall selling stir-fried dishes.

Customers must make a reservation by phone before heading there and the stall owners will check their vaccination status.

When asked why the coffee shop will be allowing this arrangement, Tan explained that it will be for families to have their reunion meals together that weekend before Chinese New Year.

At 94 Eating House, a coffee shop on Yishun Avenue 4, manpower cost is apparently why the management is not letting more than two people eat together.

Shone Lim, 22, a helper at a drinks stall there, said that it would be expensive for the management to hire two more workers to man the entry and exit points of the coffee shop if groups of five diners were allowed.

He estimated that hiring the extra workers would cost between S$300 and S$400 daily.

“We also want five people because it is better for (our business) but times are hard. What to do?”

Moreover, if the coffee shop is cordoned off to have just two access points, it will be a hassle for pedestrians, Lim said.

The coffee shop is located at the void deck of a public housing block and its seating area spills onto the pedestrian walkway of the block.

“It will be so difficult for elderly patrons to find their way (around the cordon),” he added.

Another worker from a drinks stall at a coffee shop on Holland Close also said that there is no manpower to conduct checks on patrons’ vaccination status, so the two-person rule stays. She declined to be named because she was not permitted by her boss to speak to the media.

More takeaway orders

The dining restrictions have affected businesses of coffee shops and a few are seeing a dip in traffic.

Ravindren Jvelayautham, a superviser of Aisa Restaurant, a coffee shop at Teban Gardens, said that there have been fewer customers since the curbs and most would buy takeaway food instead of eating there.

“We have not enough people now. All my workers went back to India and cannot come back because of Covid-19,” he said of why the coffee shop is keeping to the two-person rule instead of putting in place access controls for bigger groups.

Desmond Zhang, owner of a western food stall at GHK 645 Coffeeshop along Yishun Street 61, said that he did not expect business to increase by much even if groups of five were allowed to eat at the coffee shop.

The 44-year-old said that families would still prefer dining at air-conditioned restaurants, which are more comfortable than coffee shops.

A helper at a seafood stall in Fernvale, who declined to be named, said that the group restrictions did not affect the stall’s business. She observed more people buying takeaway food instead.

What patrons say

Koh Ah Teck, a 59-year-old bus driver, said that he would prefer it if groups of five may eat at coffee shops because this would allow him to go out for meals with his family and more friends.

However, Maha Nair, a 32-year-old who works in the legal industry, said that she was “ambivalent” about the restrictions.

“If I want to eat with my family, it's six of us in total so the five-person rule means we cannot eat out together anyway,” she said. ― TODAY