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Saturday, Jul 04, 2020

Coronavirus: Hong Kong restaurants install physical barriers between diners to allay contagion fears

Businesses hope setting up partitions will reduce the spread of infection and offer comfort to nervous customers. An infectious diseases expert advises people not to talk to each other if they have to eat out together

Restaurants in Hong Kong are segregating diners with physical barriers in an attempt to minimise the risk of contagion and boost consumer confidence as the coronavirus outbreak hammers the industry.

Roll-up banners and acrylic panels have been installed between tables – and even those eating out together – as the number of confirmed cases of the virus in the city continue to rise.

LH Group, one of Hong Kong’s biggest restaurant chains, was racing to install partitions at all of its nearly 40 venues by the end of the week as a temporary preventive measure, its chairman Simon Wong Kit-lung told the Post on Tuesday.

Some local tea houses, or cha chaan teng, and hospital canteens, such as at Hong Kong Baptist Hospital, have made similar arrangements. One cha chaan teng in Tai Kok Tsui set up two-feet tall transparent panels on each of its 10 or so tables.

“Our focus and priority is fighting against the outbreak,” Wong said. “The roll-up banners will at least offer some comfort to diners.”

The scare over dining out – which is worst for cuisine where food is shared – reached new heights in recent days when it emerged that 11 members of the same family who sat down together as a group of 19 for a hotpot meal became infected with the deadly contagion.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Hong Kong jumped to 49 on Tuesday, while the total in mainland China – where the vast majority of infections are – is at more than 43,100. More than 1,000 people have died worldwide.

LH Group, whose restaurants mainly serve Japanese hotpot or shabu-shabu, have continued operating as normal but with extra precautions, such as requiring workers to wash their hands on an hourly basis and checking the body temperature of diners and staff, Wong said.

“We install the roll-up banners based on our common sense, and encourage diners to come to our restaurants with close folks, not in a big group for socialising purposes,” he added.

Simon Wong Ka-wo, president of the Hong Kong Federation of Restaurants and Related Trades, welcomed the move by restaurateurs.

“Some restaurant owners have gone the extra mile in creating space between diners,” he said. “Diners’ confidence on eating out has weakened since the social unrest and has yet to come back. So any measures to boost confidence are needed.”

Hong Kong restaurant takings fell 5.9 per cent to HK$112.5 billion (US$14.5 billion) in 2019 from the previous year, partly due to the anti-government protests that broke out in the city in June last year.

Despite the efforts by restaurants, doctors have recommended avoiding social gatherings altogether, especially group-dining.
University of Hong Kong professor and microbiologist Yuen Kwok-yung advised people on Tuesday to steer clear of social activities in crowds, such as hotpot, mahjong games and church gatherings.

Dr Joseph Tsang Kay-yan, a specialist in infectious diseases, discouraged diners at “this critical time” from attending hotpot gatherings, which he said tended to last for several hours with people huddled together and dipping raw food into a central pot of soup stock.

If people choose to eat together they should keep their distance, not sit facing each other and even avoid talking, Tsang advised.

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