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Coronavirus

Singapore holds out hope for coexisting with COVID as cases rise

Restored rules buy time for vaccines while daily community cases top 100

Cleaners disinfect a food center in Singapore after a hawker tested positive for COVID-19 last month.   © Reuters

SINGAPORE -- It took fewer than 10 days for reported community coronavirus cases in Singapore to grow from zero to over 100 this month, highlighting persistent risks despite a swift vaccination campaign.

Thursday brought deja vu for residents of the city-state, with authorities imposing another ban on dining in restaurants, as seen only about two months ago. Singapore is on guard against the highly contagious delta variant that has driven a COVID-19 resurgence around the world, including far-harder-hit neighboring countries like Malaysia and Indonesia.

Yet officials also say the retreat from reopening plans is temporary, buying time for even greater numbers to get inoculated. They have also resisted the firm lockdowns seen elsewhere, opting instead to target activities deemed to be higher risk.

More than 50% of the population of 5.7 million has received two vaccine doses, and ultimately Singapore plans to treat the coronavirus as a less-threatening endemic illness like influenza.

For now, eateries exhausted by a year and a half of the pandemic face another rough stretch, with the dine-in ban in effect until Aug. 18.

"It definitely is frustrating," Preston Samuel, outlet manager of a kebab restaurant in central Singapore, told Nikkei Asia. He said he expects at least a 50% dip in takings while the business is only able to offer takeout or deliveries for the next month or so.

"Food-wise, like you are having kebabs and all -- taking it away, it wouldn't be as fresh as how you eat it on the spot," he said, pointing out how the restaurant depends on walk-in customers.

On the wall of Samuel's establishment hung a laminated notice telling customers that only pairs were allowed to dine in under prevailing rules. It had been up for less than a week, but like similar advisories plastered across Singapore, it was already obsolete.

From a ban, to a maximum of two diners, to five, back to two, and now a ban again -- Singaporean officials have gone back and forth on the rules as the COVID-19 situation has fluctuated over recent weeks.

Last year, the country battled intense outbreaks in densely packed dormitories for migrant workers. While officials were able to put out that fire, mainly by isolating the workers, now the fear is a similar rush of transmissions could occur in the general population

Karaoke clubs operating in the shadows, passing themselves off as food and beverage joints but where hostesses offer companionship to patrons, have been a major source of infections recently. Transmissions have also been identified at a fishery port, raising suspicions that the virus may have been brought in on Indonesian or other fishing boats delivering hauls of seafood.

Markets selling fish and some public housing blocks have produced evidence of transmissions as well, raising red flags over the extent of the spread among residents.

Daily community infection numbers this week have consistently exceeded 100, reaching a high of 182 on Tuesday -- a record, since dorm cases are counted separately. Singapore's total case count for the pandemic has exceeded 63,000.

Apart from the dining-in ban, authorities have capped social gatherings to pairs, down from groups of five, with museums needing to operate at reduced capacity and cinemas unable to sell food and drinks.

The intent is to stave off COVID-19 transmissions until a higher proportion of the population is fully immunized against the disease, protecting more vulnerable segments of society such as still-unvaccinated seniors.

Yet officials also say COVID-19 is unlikely to disappear. Even as the situation has worsened lately, they are sticking with a vision of living with an endemic disease that can be managed.

"With a much higher percentage of our population fully vaccinated, we can then re-open the industries, with the confidence that even if cases were to reach 100 to 200 cases like today, or even higher, we know we can stay safe and businesses can continue and lives can go on," Singapore's Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said earlier this week.

The city-state aims to have two-thirds of the population complete the two-shot regime around the time it marks its independence on Aug. 9.

While the country bets on this strategy, businesses like Samuel's kebab shop are hurting. The Alliance of Frontline Business Trade Associations in Singapore, which represents the interests of companies in the food and beverage, retail and small businesses sectors, has sounded the alarm.

"All sectors of frontline businesses ... are deeply concerned with the sustainability of our businesses," the alliance said in a media statement, appealing for help from landlords to share the burden of restrictions with their tenants.

"After 16 months of a roller-coaster pandemic crisis, businesses who have managed to survive thus far are burdened by the loss of revenue and their ability to sustain jobs and afford rentals."

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