By Wong Casandra and Chia Han Keong
SINGAPORE — In its effort to curb the spread of COVID-19 within its borders, the Singapore government announced that all ticketed cultural, sports and entertainment events with 250 participants or more are to be deferred or cancelled.
Before committed events – with tickets already sold – are allowed to proceed, organisers must also show that satisfactory precautionary measures have been put in place.
These and other social distancing measures advised for mass gatherings, workplaces, and public venues were shared at a press conference on Friday (13 March) led by the COVID-19 multi-ministry taskforce. The advisories will be subject to further review based on the global situation.
“We know the virus is already circulating within our own population, and we have to do more to contain or to reduce the slowdown of the spread of the virus within Singapore itself,” said National Development Minister and taskforce co-chair Lawrence Wong.
While measures such as contact tracing and quarantining remain extremely important and will continue, Wong stressed that social distancing – which reduces density and crowdedness – too can go a long way.
“As you can see, in this room, we are practising what we preach; we are also applying some social distancing principles for all of us,” he pointed out.
He was referring to a seating arrangement observed for the first time during such press conferences, where both speakers and reporters were seated one metre apart from each other.
On the decision to cap at 250 participants, Wong said that the figure is used as a simple guide to let event organisers know roughly where to benchmark the size of their events.
When asked how authorities arrived at the figure, Health Minister and taskforce co-chair Gan Kim Yong described the decision to cap at 250 participants – a “reasonable number”– as a “judgement call”.
Wong stressed that social distancing measures “are more complex than a single number” and other factors to be considered include the duration and nature of the activity.
“People, dining, meeting and interacting with one another – there is obviously more physical contact. To go through each of these principles (and make it) into a simple guideline is extremely difficult,” he noted.
“But at the end of the day, scale does matter...Many other countries, incidentally, have set similar benchmarks for the same reasons.”
But he noted exceptions can be made: “If (the event is held in) a very big venue with more than 250 participants and all the social distancing principles are upheld, we would certainly be prepared to consider for such events to continue proceeding.”
When asked about how long such measures would be put in place, Gan said that as the taskforce does not know how long the outbreak will last, plans must be sufficiently flexible to be sustainable over a long-term period.
“In fact, some of these measures that we are hoping to increase may be in place even after this outbreak,” he added.
Apart from organisers of ticketed events, those organising all other mass gatherings – such as private functions and religious services – have been advised to limit to below 250 participants, where possible.
Other precautions for such organisers to take include ensuring that participants do not crowd and improving ventilation by seating them at least one metre apart, as well as conducting health screening measures and taking steps to facilitate contact tracing, such as obtaining their contact details.
Government events, large conferences
When asked about how these measures may affect government events, such as the May Day Rally and the National Day Parade, Wong said that they would have to be adjusted accordingly.
For instance, where there is a major speech or a rally, government agencies can organise potentially more than one venue for the event, he noted. Each can be capped at less than 250 audience members in size with video streaming of the delivered speech available.
Such arrangements can also be applied to large conferences, such as the upcoming Shangri-La Dialogue to be held from 5 to 7 June.
“If you think about conference events which have thousands of people gathering, it doesn't mean that the entire conference needs to be cancelled; you can still take precautions in line with the advisory,” Wong said.
Private functions, religious services
Wong noted that many organisations, private functions, and religious gatherings will take some time to adjust, adding that the government will work with them, particularly religious leaders, towards such measures.
Organisers of private events such as weddings may adapt some of the proposed measures accordingly. "(For the) bride and groom, obviously, social distancing one metre apart may not be a very good start to the wedding," he said.
But some sensible measures can still be applied to weddings, including the spreading out of guests at tables, implementing temperature-taking and keeping a comprehensive name list, said Wong.
Authorities have also been in touch with all religious leaders over the past weeks and will continue their engagement with them to see how each group can make suitable adjustments to their religious services in line with the guidelines, he added.
For example, Wong pointed out that the Catholic Church, before it decided to continue suspending masses on Thursday, was thinking of re-starting the service with several tweaks: shortening its length, doing away with singing and physical contact as well as numbering pews to facilitate easier contact tracing where necessary.
“Those are very sensible precautions and that’s the spirit of this – we want to get every organiser to start thinking hard about sensible precautions that they can take,” he said.
Workplaces, public venues
Employers are also advised to also “reduce close contact where feasible”, said the Ministry of Health (MOH) in a press release issued on Friday.
This could mean implementing tele-commuting and video-conferencing where possible, as well as staggering work hours and allowing employees to commute at off-peak hours. Seating in meeting rooms and work stations could also be spaced apart.
Similarly, owners and tenants of public venues are also advised to help reduce close contact by patrons, where possible, the MOH said.
For instance, eateries could set their seats at least one metre apart. Entertainment venues and tourist attractions – such as casinos, cinemas, theme parks and museums – can limit their number of visitors at their facilities at any one time as well as increase spacing among visitors,
Sports centres with indoor facilities – like gyms, private academies – can too limit the number of patrons, introduce physical separation measures, increase the frequency of cleaning, as well as issue advisories to reduce unnecessary contact, and practise public hygiene.
Declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on Wednesday, the outbreak has sickened over 139,000 people globally and killed over 5,000 to date.
To date, Singapore has 200 confirmed cases of the virus, of which over 50 are imported. While 97 patients have fully recovered and have been discharged from hospital, 11 remain in critical condition in the intensive care unit.
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