Singapore Sticks to Social Distancing Without Full Lockdown

Niluksi Koswanage and Faris Mokhtar

(Bloomberg) --

Even as its neighbors and countries around the world are aggressively shutting down restaurants, bars, theaters and other non-essential businesses to contain the spread of the coronavirus, Singapore is boldly resisting that move.

The city-state -- seen as a litmus test for containing the spread of the coronavirus -- is “doing its utmost” to prevent the spread without having a complete lockdown as is the case with other countries, President Halimah Yacob said in a Facebook post on Friday. Singapore reported its first two deaths from the virus on Saturday.

The government has been working to limit disruptions to companies and workers after Malaysia -- its closest neighbor -- imposed rules on Monday to prevent its citizens from traveling overseas. The ban has raised concerns of labor and food shortages for the island, which relies heavily on its northern neighbor. In Indonesia, south of Singapore, a state of emergency was declared for its capital Jakarta on Friday as authorities stepped up efforts by shutting down movie theaters, bars and other businesses to limit the spread.

In the U.S., an increasing number of states -- including California, New York and Illinois -- are also asking residents to stay at home as local governments around the country ordered “non-essential” businesses to close, while the U.K. ordered pubs, restaurants and leisure centers across the country to shutter from Friday night, joining actions taken earlier by other European nations.

In a city where many restaurants and shops remain open -- albeit with fewer tourists as it starts issuing 14-day stay-home notices to all travelers -- Halimah said the social and economic disruptions are “enormous” if such a lockdown was to take place. Singapore’s economy is already taking a hit and facing a recession due to virus-linked disruptions to trade and tourism.

The island has yet to reach the peak in terms of coronavirus transmission, with so-called imported cases continuing to be a concern, Halimah said. The government will, however, prohibit events and gatherings of 250 or more people.

A total of 40 new virus cases were reported as of 12 p.m. on Friday, taking the total to 385. Thirty of the new infections were brought in by arrivals to the city and the majority of these were Singapore residents returning home, it said.

Singapore Emerges as Litmus Test for Coronavirus Containment

The move to ban large gatherings is an expansion of the previous requirement for ticketed sports, cultural and entertainment events to be limited to fewer than 250 people, the Ministry of Health said in a statement. The ministry also urged employers to make it easy for staff to work from home, and said it would extend the suspension of some activities for seniors by another 14 days until April 7.

“We are not seeing any evidence of widespread community transmission within Singapore yet at this stage because most of the increase comes from imported cases,” National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs a ministerial task force to tackle the virus, said at a briefing Friday. But “we want to be proactive in putting in place very stringent safe-distancing measures early,” he said.

Operators who don’t comply with the requirement to suspend large gatherings can be prosecuted under the Infectious Diseases Act and anyone convicted for a first offense could be fined as much as S$10,000 ($6,900) and jailed for as long as six months.

The Singapore government also launched a new mobile application on Friday to speed up contact tracing by detecting and recording nearby phones that also have the app installed, instead of relying on memories of individuals, which can be fallible.

The app estimates the distance between the users and the duration of their contact -- within 2 meters and in a 30-minute timeframe -- and this information will be recorded and stored locally on each user’s phone, it said.

(Updates with deaths, contact tracing app from paragraph two)

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