A public backlash is forcing Hong Kong’s government to reconsider a controversial plan to ban the sale of alcohol in bars and restaurants and seek other ways of enforcing further social distancing, as the city faces the threat of a worsening coronavirus crisis.
Sources on Thursday said Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor would hold a special meeting of her advisers in the Executive Council on Friday afternoon to discuss the possibility of scrapping the alcohol ban and rolling out tougher measures against public gatherings.
Hong Kong recorded 43 new cases of Covid-19 on Thursday, the third-highest single-day surge and mostly involving people returning from overseas, while a community cluster of infections involving bars was becoming more worrying with 124 people revealed to be at risk. The city’s tally now stands at 453.
Lam rattled the food and beverage industry earlier this week by announcing that Hong Kong’s 8,600 bars, restaurants and nightclubs holding liquor licences might be forced to stop serving alcohol after some members of the public flouted calls to limit socialising. Owners complained the proposal unfairly targeted them, while medical experts and even Lam’s own top advisers said it would prove ineffective.
Exco members might drop the ban in favour of other strategies to better enforce physical distancing, including reducing the opening hours of restaurants and shops, and controlling the size of gatherings.
“The liquor ban could be too complicated and controversial,” one source said. “And the epidemic situation this week became alarming. There’s not much time to wait.”
Sources said the new measures could come into effect by the weekend and the government would make an announcement after the meeting.
“The government received lots of criticism soon after the liquor ban suggestion came out on Monday,” Hui said. “I believe they will amend it, given the surge of confirmed cases in the city. A better measure would be to follow Germany’s example to limit the number of people gathering and restrict the number of customers inside restaurants. Customers should also sit a certain distance apart and face to one side.”
Civic Party lawmaker Kwok Ka-ki, a doctor, lambasted the government for wasting precious time in bolstering the city’s defences against the pandemic.
“The government’s indecisive attitude is unacceptable. We’re now in critical time to prevent a huge outbreak,” Kwok said, calling for the Legislative Council’s Panel on Food Safety and Environmental Hygiene to hold a special meeting on the matter.
Hong Kong Food Truck Federation chairman Gordon Lam Sui-wa said many restaurants and bars were willing to cooperate with reasonable social distancing measures, provided the government provide subsidies to help cover salaries and rent. “As they offer nothing now, we will definitely not ban sales on alcohol,” Lam said.
Among the latest round of infections were 29 people with a history of recent travel, while many of the remaining 14 were tied to previously known cases.
But in a dramatic escalation of local transmission, the Centre for Health Protection announced that four of the new cases were musicians who had performed at Insomnia in Lan Kwai Fong, All Night Long in Tsim Sha Tsui and Dusk Till Dawn in Wan Chai. Three bar staff and four patrons who had visited at least one of the establishments were also reported infected.
The musicians were part of a roster of nine bands managed by one company, which also operated the bars as well as a fourth, the centre said. All told, 124 people falling under the umbrella of the company could be at risk, the centre said. So far, 16 confirmed cases had been reported from the cluster.
The centre said it was focusing on tracking down the other people employed by the company who had not yet reported any symptoms.
“Some of them are linked together quite closely, as the company provided residences for them,” said Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan, the head of the centre’s communicable disease branch. “We considered all the pub members and members of the bands may have had quite significant close contact with one another,” she said, adding they were advised to spend 14 days at a quarantine centre.
Some staff were lodged in Hang Shun Building on Jaffe Road in Wan Chai, also home to the company’s fourth bar Centre Stage.
One of the infected patrons was a 22-year-old police officer who visited All Night Long with a colleague. Another new case was a person who went to the Kagesha Lounge in Central, where several other infections had been previously reported.
Among the latest cases with a recent history of travel were 10 students and two foreign domestic helpers, one of whom was newly arrived from the Philippines and had previously stayed at a boarding house.
Chuang said further investigation would be needed to determine how many people were at the lodging with the maid. The second domestic worker fell ill after travelling to the United States with her employer’s family.
The Philippines consulate has asked its nationals in Hong Kong to stay at home as much as possible after it was informed by health authorities that three more Filipinos had been infected, taking the total to 16.
The Hyatt Regency Hong Kong hotel in Sha Tin also announced it was shutting for two weeks after an employee tested positive for the virus on Wednesday. The hotel, which has 562 rooms, intends to reopen on April 10.
As the city struggles to contain the risk of mushrooming local transmissions, the government continues to bring back home residents stranded in Hubei province in mainland China, where the first infections were recorded. About 500 Hongkongers have flown back aboard chartered flights since Wednesday, and the latest returnees are only required to quarantine at home and not a government-run facility.
They were not given tracking wristbands and not all were required to undergo testing for the virus, as precautionary steps had been taken during the evacuation to minimise the risk of infection, said Dr Chui Tak-yi, the undersecretary for food and health. Only one returnee had so far tested positive, he said.
“Even if they do not need to wear electronic wristbands, we can still check whether they are quarantined at home by asking them to share their locations by phone,” Chui said.
Earlier on Thursday, Finance Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po admitted some businesses were expected to take a hit from the new measures to limit social distancing. But the government was “considering whether and how to help them sail through this difficulty”, he said.
Chan did not elaborate on which areas of the economy were likely to suffer most nor what sort of assistance was being considered.
With the global number of infections racing towards half a million, and more than 22,000 dead, governments around the world are reacting swiftly to clamp down on the movement of people and provide financial relief for sectors already suffering heavy losses.
Singapore unveiled an unprecedented stimulus plan worth about S$48 billion (US$33.7 billion) to deal with the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic, with the government tapping its vast reserves for only the second time in history to deal with what is likely to be a deep recession.
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