From tour guide to safe distancing ambassador: Switching roles during the COVID-19 pandemic

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SINGAPORE: Mr Tan Jun Wei, 32, became a full-time tourist guide in February this year. The timing couldn’t have been more unfortunate.

By mid-March, the World Health Organization had declared a global pandemic; one by one, countries and governments issued travel advisories and borders were shut. By the end of the month, short-term visitors could no longer enter or transit through Singapore.

These developments have sent visitor arrivals plunging to painful lows and business has dried up for tourist guides like Mr Tan. So what does a man do when he can’t ply his trade? In his case: Embrace a new challenge.

Mr Tan is now one of 66 tourist guides who have taken on the role of a safe distancing ambassador with the Singapore Tourism Board. 

The 125-member team, which includes STB staff, conducts daily checks on businesses in the tourist districts of Orchard Road, Chinatown and Little India. They also cover hotels, tourist attractions and Singapore’s two integrated resorts.

A DAY IN THE LIFE

Safe distancing ambassadors typically tag team and work in pairs. Mr Tan and his buddy Huang Yuhua cover the Telok Ayer district and operate in three-day cycles. A regular day sees them take on two shifts – the first between 11am and 3pm, and the second between 4.30pm and 8pm.

In between shifts, they get to stretch their legs and take a break in a room specially assigned to them at the Kreta Ayer Community Club.

WATCH: COVID-19 – What does safe distancing mean

Mr Tan explained that distancing ambassadors would not normally enter the premises of an establishment. Instead, they will try to assess if a business is following safe distancing guidelines by doing a visual check from the exterior, where possible. 

“Basically our role is to ensure that F&B (food and beverage) outlets are adhering to the safe distancing rule of one-metre gaps and have crowd management (measures) in place outside their stores,” he said, adding that safe distancing ambassadors also make sure that staff and customers wear their masks at all times.

READ: ‘Never approach people from behind’ – How enforcement officers and ambassadors handle the public

What about the safe distancing ambassadors themselves? They practice safe distancing as well, by splitting up and working on opposite sides of each street, said Mr Tan. However, when new measures are introduced and a little more legwork is required to ensure that the new regulations are properly communicated, he said the ambassadors will usually work in pairs.

“On May 12, the SafeEntry app was launched. Places like hair salons, barbers, convenience stores – they need (to display) the SafeEntry (QR code and ask their customers to scan it) before allowing customers to enter,” he said. 

“Most establishments already knew what to do and had already done so over the past few days. For those not aware, ambassadors walk them through the process of applying for it. For these (businesses), we’ll give them a bit of leeway. But (in the meantime), they need to manually record the name, identity card number, contact number, and the date and time of visit (for their customers),” he added. 

THE NEW NORMAL

In his first month, Mr Tan said he witnessed how businesses had to adapt to the new normal. For instance, F&B establishments he initially came across would need constant reminders on how to wear their masks correctly, but it has become a habit by now. 

“In the beginning, it was a bit more challenging because kitchen staff would say it’s very warm in the kitchen,” he said. “What’s changed is that (now) everyone has to wear a mask (so) business owners as well as their staff (have gotten) used to it. Our presence is also a constant reminder for them.”

WATCH: The robot dog promoting safe distancing in Singapore’s parks

Businesses can be fined S$300 for the first offence of flouting safe distancing rules or if staff are caught not wearing masks. While safe distancing ambassadors do not have the power to issue fines, they can refer cases to enforcement officers. 

“If (businesses) totally ignore us, if they lock the doors, we’ll escalate it to the enforcement officers so that they can take over and investigate,” said Mr Tan. 

According to STB, more than 130 instances of non-compliance were referred to its three enforcement officers between May 1 and May 11.

Being assigned to certain neighbourhoods means Mr Tan and Ms Huang have also become familiar – and more welcome – faces. 

“Some, in the beginning, wouldn’t even talk to us… They would just ignore us,” he said. “Initially, I believed that business was bad and on top of that we were checking on them … It made the whole operation very difficult.”   

But things changed for the better, said Mr Tan. “Over time, we’ve found that more store owners have become friendlier. In fact, some of the stores, the owners, when they see us walking around, they will ask have you eaten? Have you had your meals? The weather is very hot, do you want water? They’ll actually offer and that’s very touching. You can see that they understand our difficulty … and appreciate what we’re doing during this period.”

COMMUNICATION AND EMPATHY

Mr Tan said being a safe distancing ambassador is a natural fit for tourist guides because both roles rely on communication and empathy. 

For instance, Mr Tan said he and his buddy would often lend a listening ear to retailers facing difficulties during the circuit breaker period. 

Among these difficulties were having the steep learning curve that came with working on digital delivery platforms as an older-generation business, as well as having to enforce safe distancing among customers picking up their orders. 

“We inform them and offer suggestions … like (they) can add more (safe distancing markers) or try to reduce (their) orders to a smaller number per batch so they won’t have (to manage) an overcrowded store,” Mr Tan said. 

“When they take our advice and (improve) and their business is maintained, we’re very happy. (I’m happy) I actually played a part in ensuring they can still operate during this tough period.”

Being a safe distancing ambassador is also a good way for Mr Tan to get to know places he will introduce to visitors when he resumes his job as a tourist guide. 

“Honestly, some of these places or shops, I didn’t really know they existed,” he said. 

Mr Tan also said he looks forward to the day when the hustle and bustle of tourism returns to Singapore. 

“In future, I can share during my tours … the small part that I played (during COVID-19). They will have experiences to share as well, so this will become more of a two-way communication that I definitely feel will bring an enhanced experience (to the guests).”

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