Previously closed businesses approached the start of the country’s transition phase this weekend with cautious optimism.
It has been over three months since Brunei suffered the second wave of COVID-19 fueled by the delta variant, which drove up total cases to over 14,400 with close to 100 deaths.
On August 7 – the day the of the community outbreak – the government immediately ordered the closure of several business activities including dining in at eateries, health and beauty establishments, sports and fitness facilities, learning institutions, and entertainment centres.
Fiscal stimulus measures in the form of tax breaks, salary subsidies and loan deferments were announced soon after to mitigate the pandemic impact, but for businesses that had to close – or had to significantly downscale operations – being able to return safely was their main priority.
Buoyed by an increase in vaccinations, the country reached its 70% fully vaccinated target earlier than expected, enabling the start of the transition phase under the National COVID-19 Recovery Framework on November 19.
With government and business premises accepting up to 50% of their premise capacity to the fully vaccinated, previously closed businesses and dining in have also been allowed to resume.
This weekend, several established restaurants have continued to serve only takeaway, while most health and beauty establishment opened only for appointments. Many however, have taken advantage of the revised stay-at-home hours of 10pm to 4am to extend operations until 8pm to 9pm.
The government’s sector guidelines for the transition phase outline how business operations should proceed in the transition phase, but even while adhering to the mandated SOPs, businesses will need to strike their own balance in seeking profitability while operating safely to prevent further outbreaks.
The health and beauty services sector have faced much a different prospect in the second wave, after being exempted from the list of shuttered businesses during the first wave in March last year.
Unisex salon Hairquarter and local barbershop Bercuts are prioritising appointments, utilising the web-based scheduling software Setmore for customers. They’ve also doubled the time allocated for regular sessions to allow ample time for cleaning up of stations afterwards and to avoid customers coming into contact.
“We want to minimise the number of people in the shop at any time, so there will be no waiting – you come in, get attended to straight away and then leave,” said Hairquarter Manager Ooi Boon Pin @ Buff, who has almost two decades experience as a hair stylist in Malaysia and Brunei.
The Kiulap-based Hairquarter, which has been in operation since 2018, will be using four of its eight seats in its salon, equally divided between genders who have their own segregated space.
Buff said having enough liquidity was critical for the business to survive the closure period, as he continued to pay 60% of their rental while keeping up basic salaries for their four hair stylists and three assistants. Prior to reopening, their staff also took PCR tests at the drive-through swab testing facility at Bridex.
“With each month that passes it was very difficult to predict (when we could reopen) and if we could sustain,” he added. “Thankfully now that we have reopened our bookings are mostly full until the end of the month.”
The founder of the Jerudong-based Bercuts Fahad Bahrein has limited their service to just hair cuts, with no trimming or shaving of facial hair, to ensure that masks are worn throughout the session.
“Normally at Bercuts, we pride ourself in offering premium service; like hot towel treatment, hair wash and even complimentary coffee afterwards. Unfortunately for now we have to stop these services, and we’re happy to see that our customers are still booking appointments nevertheless,” said Fahad.
Fahad’s all-local team of eight, who he continued to pay during the pandemic, are split into two shifts, working two days on, followed by two day off as part of their Business Continuity Plan (BCP).
“By having alternate teams, if one is compromised (due to an outbreak) hopefully the other can continue,” he added.
Meanwhile Moistjito, one of the few eateries who have consistently operated at Kontena Park during the pandemic, have managed to offset losses from events and dining in being canceled by setting up an online store using the locally developed Kedai POS software.
“Typically a large chunk of our revenue comes from pop up events and caterings which were canceled since August,” said co-founder Sheikh Muhd Aiman Hj Sheikh Mohd. “So our overall sales is down, however sales just from Kontena Park actually increased (despite the dining in closure) since we started using the online store and doing our own deliveries.”
The Kedai POS online store offers businesses their own web link containing their menu to share with customers, who can then browse and select. Once the order is placed the customer will receive a summary message through WhatsApp.
One of Brunei’s biggest gyms Fitness Zone, has also implemented an online booking system for members, although it still open for walk ins, subject to their premise’s capacity limit.
Their flagship branch in Kiulap has listed their overall capacity as 150 persons, though each section, including studio rooms for classes, have posters listing its own capacity limits for customers to be aware of.
Fitness Zone has about 3,000 members, about half who are active. General Manager Mike Abacan said membership periods were automatically frozen during the closure period.
They tried to offer virtual personal training sessions but uptake was limited, with the business instead deciding to conduct free virtual group training sessions that were announced on their Instagram.
“Our founder Wu Chun wanted to give back to the community during this tough time, so to encourage exercising safely from home we held free group sessions with our trainers for everyone to join in,” said Avacan.
“Now to help encourage activity again at the gym we have introduced a $99 monthly package which includes the registration fee ($30) and unlimited access to the gym and any classes.”
With a workforce of nearly 40 staff, Abacan ensured that both teir branches in Kiulap and Serusop are being regularly cleaned and disinfected.