Queues form at bubble tea shops hours before they shut to comply with tighter controls to curb Covid-19

Customers queuing for bubble tea from Koi at Yew Tee MRT Station on April 21, 2020 at about 9pm. — TODAY pic
Customers queuing for bubble tea from Koi at Yew Tee MRT Station on April 21, 2020 at about 9pm. — TODAY pic

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SINGAPORE, April 22 — When Faith Liang heard the news that standalone bubble tea outlets will have to close until May 4 or longer, the 27-year-old human resource professional decided she had to step out of her home to get one last sip of her favourite beverage. 

She drinks bubble tea at least once a week and there are three different shops selling the popular Taiwanese tea-based drinks around her Bukit Gombak neighbourhood. 

What she did not expect was that there were many others just like her and they were already there before her.

At Itea, the drinks were sold out by the time she got there at 9pm, while the massive crowd in front of Liho was just not worth the wait. 

With little other choice, Liang headed to Yucha, a shop that she said was “less than popular” and had about two customers waiting on most days. 

When she arrived, there were already 10 people in line so she had to wait around 15 to 20 minutes for her order.

After she had collected her “pearl milk tea” without the pearls (balls of chewy tapioca), Liang said that there were easily more than 20 people behind her.

It was not the best experience or flavour, but she was content.

“It’s a staple comfort drink, like eating ice cream for me. I don’t know how long I will have to wait to be able to have it again.”

From today, standalone food-and-beverage outlets that sell only beverages, packaged snacks, confectionaries or desserts will have to close their outlets until at least May 4.

Some of the businesses that have to shut include specialised stores and outlets that predominantly sell drinks including bubble tea, fruit juice, smoothies, soya bean, coffee and tea, the Ministry of Trade and Industry said in a news release.

Liang and her fellow Bukit Gombak residents were not the only bubble tea lovers in Singapore out in force to get their sweet treats. 

Over at a Koi outlet at Yew Tee MRT Station at 9pm and Whale Tea at Lot One Shoppers' Mall in Chua Chu Kang at 9.30pm, long queues were seen when TODAY was there.

Delivery riders waiting and customers queueing for bubble tea from Koi at Yew Tee MRT Station on April 21, 2020 at about 9pm. — TODAY pic
Delivery riders waiting and customers queueing for bubble tea from Koi at Yew Tee MRT Station on April 21, 2020 at about 9pm. — TODAY pic

Photos and videos of snaking queues outside bubble tea shops across the island yesterday night went viral hours after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced in a live address to the nation that the circuit breaker to limit movement of people was extended to June 1 and more businesses selling non-essential items will have to close to arrest the spread of the coronavirus.

The number of cases in Singapore have shot up recently due to vigorous testing of foreign workers staying in dormitories and the number of cases with unknown sources of infection among the general population is still on the rise.

Among the numerous images and footages going around social media was one clip showing a commotion outside the Playmade bubble tea shop at Waterway Point mall in Punggol, where a food delivery worker was seen shouting at the shop’s crew and other people trying to hold him back as the agitated man yelled vulgarities. It was not clear what caused the ruckus. 

People were ordering their drinks through food delivery platforms as well, although several had their orders cancelled due to overwhelming demand.

Voon Yueqi, 19, who is waiting to further her studies at the National University of Singapore, said that she gets her bubble tea “fix” about three times a week. She tried ordering from Gong Cha through Deliveroo as early as 7.15pm.

To her dismay, she realised too late an hour later that the order was cancelled because the shop was closing.

“I was distraught,” she said, adding that she would not know when she would have the drink again. “Bubble tea is my 'comfort food'. It makes me feel better during this time (when most activities are restricted).”

Nivani Elangovan, a 21-year-old undergraduate from Nanyang Technological University who has not had bubble tea since the circuit breaker started on April 7, said: “You don’t know what you want till it’s gone.” 

The first-year communications student took a five-minute walk to her Yishun neighbourhood’s Itea shop and bought a drink after queueing, but not satisfied with the one flavour left that was being sold, she went to Sweet Talk to get another drink, a hazelnut milk tea.

One 25-year-old working temporarily to deliver food via GrabFood, and who gave her name as just Lim, said that the behaviour of some online customers left her “speechless”.

“I understand that there are people who love bubble tea and can't go without it for a month or more. The point is, drivers and riders were putting their health at risk waiting hours for orders, just so that people may have their ‘last’ drink," she said.

“When the outlets ran out of stock or ingredients due to the sudden increase in orders and when riders or drivers called up customers to cancel orders, there were people who insisted that they wanted their drinks no matter what. To quote one customer, ‘I don't care, I want my order today’.

“Remember that the drivers and riders are not the business owners," Lim said. "These customers, they had a choice — they could have simply waited patiently. When the crisis gets better, they may get as much bubble tea as they want.”

As the queues petered out in front of Koi at Yew Tee MRT Station around 10pm, 26-year-old analyst Falihah Anisah happened to be walking by. Unaware that the shop had sold its last drink minutes before, she enquired and left quickly with a shrug.

“I think I’m the minority," she said. "I’m not going to cry about it, but I know a lot of people would have been disappointed.” 

Aside from the bubble tea shops, hair salons and barbers — originally allowed to open for only hair-cutting services — will now have to stop operations temporarily as well.

Joanna Tan, 48, owner of Jo Hair Studio at Lengkok Bahru near Redhill, did not quite believe the news when a customer told her about it at around 8.45pm — 15 minutes before her usual closing time.

“It’s so last-minute. I thought we would still be allowed to operate even after I heard the 5pm announcement (of the extension of the circuit breaker)."

By 9.15pm, she had accepted five bookings up to midnight and had to turn away some. Still, customers continued to walk in or call her salon every once in a while.

“After the circuit breaker was first announced (in early April), there was a mad rush for hair-colouring services (before the rules kicked in). Now we see a repeat for haircuts. But after tonight, I will have to stay at home and rest,” Tan said. — TODAY

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