This is a sponsored article which first appeared on Conde Nast Traveler.

Interior of Manhattan at Regent Singapore Courtesy Cloudstreet

Singapore is defined by its collective love of good food—and not even a global pandemic could damper the country’s love of eating out and eating well. Which explains why as soon as COVID-19 restrictions eased on June 19, allowing Singaporeans to return to restaurants and eateries in groups of five, locals hotfooted it to their favorite establishments and flooded online reservation platforms. By the end of July, the city's restaurants reported their highest sales in years, reflecting the public’s pent-up hunger for dining out again.

Interior of Cloudstreet. Cloudstreet, a fine-dining restaurant, has reworked its protocols to prioritize safety and hygiene. (Courtesy Cloudstreet)

Reopening in the wake of a pandemic, however, requires lofty cleaning measures, even in a city whose hygiene standards have always been the stuff of legend. And Singapore’s eateries, from five-star restaurants to hawker stalls, aren’t taking any chances.

At progressive fine-dining restaurant Cloudstreet, guests who leave their seats to visit the restroom now find fresh napkins at their table upon their return. The plush card stock souvenir menus usually presented at the end of the meal are now digital, to reduce physical contact.

Nicola Ying, a recent diner at Cloudstreet, noticed a significant change in safety protocols right from the start of her dining experience. “Luckily Cloudstreet is quite a large restaurant so it didn't feel empty but there was certainly reduced seating and guests were more spread out,” she says. “Staff were masked up and chefs wore gloves when they came to our table to shave truffles on our dishes, for example. There were hand sanitizers on our table and common areas, so it definitely felt like they were making an effort.”

Little touches like these are part of the restaurant’s efforts to adhere to the SG Clean quality mark. Introduced in February by the National Environment Agency, the program was rolled out to the lifestyle and tourism sectors by Singapore Tourism Board and Enterprise Singapore (a government agency focused on business development) to boost sanitation and hygiene in related businesses. It focuses on certifying establishments that experience high daily footfall to ensure that they meet the baseline of good industry practices.

To be certified, businesses must comply with a seven-point checklist that includes things like the implementation of standardized cleanliness and hygiene practices, guidelines for engaging external personnel such as suppliers and contractors, and the appointment of a manager to oversee the above. To date, more than 400 restaurants, cafes, and bars have attained certification, along with more than 2,500 hawker, market, and coffee shop stalls.

Keeping ahead of the curve

Even before seeking SG Clean certification, Cloudstreet had installed additional safeguards to protect itself and its customers from exposure to the virus. “We were already practicing social distancing and keeping records of our team members’ temperatures when they arrive and leave,” said chef-owner Rishi Naleendra, who famously closed his Michelin-starred restaurant Cheek By Jowl in 2019 to open Cloudstreet.

“Having the SG Clean certification gives our guests an added layer of comfort when they dine with us, knowing that we’ve done everything we can to ensure that the restaurant’s environment is safe. Guests can enjoy peace of mind and relax for a while, forget what’s going on in the outside world.”

Numerous other food-and-beverage players, including the family-owned Da Paolo Group, began ramping up safety precautions as soon as COVID-19 hit Singapore at the beginning of the year. Efforts such as safe distancing, sanitizing tables after every use, and utilizing disposable cleaning equipment had already been put into practice before the Da Paolo’s restaurants and cafes attained SG Clean certification. Adopting the mark, then, largely involved formalizing its Safety Management Measures Systems by creating a cloud from which all staff could access the certification’s necessary documents.

In larger establishments, training proved the most crucial part of attaining the mark. “We need to ensure that every staffer is aware of the regulations and abides by the new standard operating procedures,” says Oscar Postma, general manager at the five-star Regent Singapore hotel.

Today, the hotel’s F&B outlets—including the Michelin-starred Summer Palace and Manhattan, ranked 11 on the list of World’s 50 Best Bars—are sanitized hourly and offer contactless payment options, among other measures that meet the stringent standards upheld by the SG Clean inspectors, who visit weekly.

Cleanliness, at what cost?

If it all sounds costly, that’s because it is. While the certification itself doesn’t come with a fee, maintaining the level of cleanliness that it requires still impacts restaurateurs. “To be candid, the financial implications of keeping stock of masks, sanitizers, and all the necessary collateral is a challenge,” says Naleendra. “The industry is already on its knees and these things cost money.”

But some say these additional expenses are worth the rewarding sense of security a restaurant feels, knowing that it is abiding by the highest standards of hygiene. “We embarked on the certification purely with the intention of safeguarding our staff and customers,” says Francesca Scarpa, the Da Paolo Group’s head of marketing and product management. “We didn’t envision that attaining it would result in any tangible benefit to our business, but if it helps boost customer confidence, it’s a bonus.”

Singaporeans are also just happy to be dining out again. “To be honest, having restaurant staff in masks does change the ambience and makes it difficult to communicate with them,” says Ying, the diner. “Listening to them explain the dishes and wines was a little trickier, but these are the rules and we abide by them. I don't believe it should deter anyone from dining out and supporting our favorite places.”