Karaoke lounge outbreak forces Singapore to tighten Covid restrictions

City-state reported 163 new locally transmitted infections on Monday, highest since last August

A couple walks under a Singapore flag hanging outside a karaoke lounge in Singapore on Friday. Photograph: Wallace Woon/EPA

A couple walks under a Singapore flag hanging outside a karaoke lounge in Singapore on Friday. Photograph: Wallace Woon/EPA

 

Singapore has tightened social-distancing restrictions after reporting the highest number of locally transmitted Covid-19 cases in nearly a year, as the city-state grapples with a swelling cluster linked to karaoke lounges.

The decision is a blow to the country’s efforts to recover from the pandemic and was taken just days after the government had loosened rules as case numbers had dropped to low single digits.

Singapore reported 163 new locally transmitted infections on Monday, the highest number since August 2020, with the largest active cluster linked to karaoke lounges, which are often associated with prostitution and gambling.

Until August 8th, only a maximum of two patrons will now be allowed to dine together in restaurants, down from five. The measures do not apply to fully vaccinated individuals.

Lawrence Wong, co-chair of Singapore’s Covid-19 task force, said the restrictions were necessary because “there is a real risk that the cases from these clusters would have spread to the community, especially if there are individuals who have not come forward for testing and we suspect there are such individuals”.

Ong Ye Kung, Singapore’s health minister, added: “The problem with this cluster is we do not have the full information of the customers, where they have been to, and where they are now.”

Authorities said they would take action against the lounges and hostesses that breached the rules as well as local residents who sponsored visas for women who have been “moonlighting” as hostesses. The police have arrested 29 women linked to karaoke bars, 10 of whom will be deported, according to local media.

The karaoke bar outbreak has triggered a backlash online against hostesses, many of whom are foreign. Their nationalities have been shared publicly but the patrons of the bars have been told their privacy would be maintained.

“The entire testing process is confidential and your privacy is protected so get yourself tested,” Ong said last week.

‘Moralising and mockery’

Project X, a Singapore-based NGO that works with sex and entertainment workers, has said the women associated with this cluster should not be vilified. “Let’s tackle [the setback] without the moralising and mockery. There’s especially nothing to gain by throwing those who are already vulnerable under the bus,” the organisation wrote on Twitter last week.

The group added that highlighting nationalities was a “costly mistake” that led to “spikes in xenophobic and racist actions and mindsets”.

A coronavirus outbreak last year ripped through crowded dormitories housing migrant workers mostly from Bangladesh, India or China. The labourers, who are essential to industries such as construction, account for almost 90 per cent of the city-state’s caseload.

Singapore has not allowed nightlife activities for more than a year and karaoke lounges are meant to operate as restaurants. Following the latest outbreak, the government has suspended operations at all nightlife locations operating as dining establishments until the end of the month.

Authorities said they would tighten restrictions further if the number of patients in intensive care – currently at one – starts climbing as a result of growing infections.

Singapore, which has fully vaccinated nearly half its 5.7 million population, is also facing a new cluster linked to a fishery port and wholesale fishing market. Authorities closed Jurong Fishery Port until July 31. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021