Hong Kong would run out of hospital beds to cope with the daily surge in coronavirus infections “very soon”, health officials warned, as the city confirmed another 59 cases on Sunday, taking the total to 641.
On the day new social-distancing regulations came into force, Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee said the measures, such as curbing public gatherings, could remain for as long as it took for them to embed into daily life.
“The coming two weeks are going to be critical,” Chan said, adding social distancing should become a “habit” and warning more restrictions could follow.
Running from Sunday for 14 days, gatherings in public spaces have been limited to four people, although there is no restriction on how many people can congregate in private or work settings. Those who flout the law could be fined up to HK$25,000 (US$3,220) and jailed for six months.
With Hong Kong’s streets quieter than usual, restaurant bosses said their businesses were taking another pounding, with revenues down a further 40 per cent from last week.
Since Saturday evening, they must restrict the number of diners at each table to four, with groups set 1½ metres apart, while businesses can only run to a maximum of 50 per cent capacity in rules also lasting two weeks.
Dr Sara Ho, the Hong Kong Hospital Authority’s chief manager of patient safety and risk management, pleaded for Hongkongers to stay home, saying she did not want to see the city’s health system paralysed as in other parts of the world.
Even though public hospitals were doing their best to convert general wards into isolation units – with about 400 new beds set to be ready this week – Ho said hospitals could run out of capacity “very soon” if Covid-19 cases continued to surge in their dozens each day.
“We’re indeed very worried that the situation will worsen. No matter how hard we’re trying to have more isolation beds, we probably cannot meet the growing demands,” she said.
As of Sunday, the occupancy rate of the city’s 1,012 isolation beds and 534 wards stood at 62 per cent and 74 per cent respectively.
Ho said most patients could get a bed within a day of being confirmed as infected, but admitted some would have to wait longer.
Of the 59 new Covid-19 cases recorded on Sunday – who were between 11 and 77 years old – 40 had recent travel history. Most had returned from the United States and Europe as the rising Covid-19 toll continued to be fuelled by imported cases.
Four of the new patients played music or worked at bars in Wan Chai, Tsim Sha Tsui and Lan Kwai Fong in Central, taking the infected total in that cluster to more than 30.
The authorities had not been able to determine the chain of transmission for six of the newly reported patients so far. Four of the city’s infected total were in a critical condition on Sunday.
As required by the new regulations, restaurants on Sunday checked temperatures before allowing customers in. Layouts were changed to meet the rule restricting tables to a maximum of four diners.
A spokesman for the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department said since the new regulations took effect from 6pm on Saturday, the department had inspected about 3,200 hospitality premises.
About 280 reminders were issued, mainly for not conducting body temperature screening on customers at the door and failing to comply with the buffer requirements between tables of diners.
In Mong Kok on Sunday afternoon, a restaurant appeared to be in breach by running at more than half its capacity.
One of its customers, Ivy Cheung, who found herself sharing a table with a stranger, said she thought those sitting face to face while eating should be separated with a screen.
“I understand it’s difficult for restaurants to let one person occupy a table,” said the IT professional. “These days, I usually just order takeaways where possible.”
Brian Tsui, who was with his girlfriend in Mong Kok on Sunday, said he had been eating out less than usual because the widespread closure of shops meant he had more reason to stay in.
Simon Wong Kit-lung, from the Institution of Dining Art, said business at many restaurants had been down by up to 40 per cent over the past few days, compared with last week.
“Some restaurant bosses hoped that the government could pay for their rent and staff payroll for two weeks,” he said. “If the government has plans to help them in any way, it must do so as quickly as possible.”
Kenneth Lau Ip-keung, a non-official member of Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s cabinet, was worried the new rules would not be enough to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
“As private premises are excluded, villagers can still gather in ancestral halls,” said Lau, a rural leader.
Meanwhile, a 64-year-old man from Hong Kong died in Peru on Friday after contracting Covid-19, the country’s health ministry announced.
As infections in Hong Kong continued to surge, the National Health Commission of China reported on Sunday that only 3,000 patients on the mainland remained in hospital after more than 81,000 had fallen ill.
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