28th February 2021 – (Hong Kong) There were 33 new confirmed COVID-19 cases in a single day yesterday, a record high in nearly three weeks. The cluster outbreak in Mr. Ming’s Chinese Dining at K11 Musea Shopping Centre in Tsim Sha Tsui has spread. At least 41 people have been infected with the virus. Many are concerned that evening dine-in services may be banned again as the existing social distancing measures will expire on 3rd March 2021. Some listed premises such as fitness centres, beauty and massage parlours may be required to close again even if the government is desperate to restart the economy.

Some catering industry players said that if the authorities again targeted the industry due to an isolated incident to ban evening dine-in services across the board, they would feel aggrieved and frustrated.

Having said that, the number of confirmed cases in Mr. Ming’s Chinese Dining cluster continues to soar. Yesterday, another 22 people were infected, including 9 diners, 4 employees and two close contacts. Another 7 preliminary cases were also recorded, including 6 close contacts and a diner. A total of at least 41 people in this cluster were infected, 20 of whom were diners, 19 of them had lunch at the restaurant on 19th of this month, and the remaining one diner went on the 18th.

Dr.Chuang Shuk-kwan from the Centre for Health Protection (CHP) added that a total of 76 diners were eating at lunchtime in the restaurant Among them, 61 diners have been sent for inspection, and more than 10 people have yet to contact CHP, including some diners who did not leave their names and contact numbers, and some phone numbers were unanswered. Dr.Chuang pointed out that an employee of “Cartier” boutique in K11 Musea was also listed a preliminary diagnosis. Due to the concerns about the hidden spread of the entire building, the centre will require the staff at K11 Musea to perform compulsory testing.

The CHP estimated that the source of the outbreak of Mr. Ming’s Chinese Dining was a cleaning staff member of the restaurant, involving a 72-year-old man living in Sau Hong House, Sau Mau Ping Estate. He developed COVID-19 virus infection on the 14th of this month. The virus test showed that there was no diagnosis at that time. Later, he developed cough symptoms on the 18th and still went to work until 4pm the next day. He was later identified as a superspreader.

Hence, one cannot help ponder whether the 14-day virus testing cycle for employees of catering premises is effective for early detection and whether the existing anti-epidemic measures implemented in catering premises make any sense.

In December 2021, we published an article to highlight a new study that shows dining at restaurants can spread only in 5 minutes among customers with zero contact. The research from South Korea published in November 2020 in the Journal of Korean Medical Science suggests that the coronavirus can travel farther than the typical six-foot social distancing radius in a very short time if there is direct airflow. This shows how dangerous indoor dining can be during the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus can spread more than three times the six-foot range in just five minutes, a much faster window than most diners spend maskless at a restaurant table while they are eating their food. The Korean scientists concluded that six feet of space between tables is not enough to protect diners from being infected. The study looked at a small outbreak earlier this year in a South Korean restaurant. Two diners were infected with COVID-19 from a third, asymptomatic diner who sat 21 feet away. The culprit, say the researchers, was the restaurant’s ceiling air conditioner, which provided direct airflow from the infected diner to the other two diners. Based on interviews and data collection on closed-circuit security TV and cell phone location data, the researchers determined that the three diners were together in the restaurant for only five minutes. They had no direct or indirect contact otherwise.

Source: Journal of Korean Medical Science
Schematic diagram of the outbreak restaurant equipped with ceiling-type air conditioners. The arrowed solid streamlines represent the air flow directions in the restaurant. Curved air streamlines represent that air streams from the ceiling air conditioners are reflected from the wall or barrier, and move downward toward the floor. Source: Journal of Korean Medical Science

In Hong Kong where space is lacking, diners sit at a closer distance than others in restaurants in most cities. No doubt the locals still pack the supermarkets, malls and public transport but restaurants have a higher risk of transmission because all diners remove their masks to eat and drink.  Some catering premises still offer tables for more than 2 diners but they are required to sit at a table next to them at close distance divided by a small piece of acrylic partition. However, does medical expert honestly think that the virus will stay behind the small piece of partition if there is an infected patient present? There is no standardised design for partition and each restaurant places partitions of random sizes to suit their space and budget as if the virus will follow the rules.

Chinese Library, Tai Kwun

Many restaurants especially in the Central district, in particular, Tai Kwun have found a way to evade the law by putting partitions on the same table instead of between tables as required under the law. Many restaurants have been taking bookings for groups of more than 2 and in Tai Kwun in January when only 2 diners were allowed per table, customers in large groups were gathering and drinking at close proximity at other restaurants such as PaztaBar at ArmouryCafe Claudel and the Dispensary on the first floor without adhering to the social distancing rules. Just because there was no COVID-19 cluster outbreak happening before does not mean that it won’t happen start in a restaurant. The recent cluster outbreak at Mr. Ming’s Chinese Dining has again brought up this issue.

Crowd partying at Dragon-I on 20th February.

During the first weekend after the government allowed catering premises to extend evening dine-in services until 10pm, Dragon-I was crowded with customers who mostly did not wear masks. They were dancing in close proximity to each other. Hundreds were linked to a dance group cluster towards the end of last year and the government should have learned its lesson to prevent hybrid catering premises such as Dragon I and Cassio to operate as a dance club and bar under the disguise of a restaurant licence.

 Simon Wong KitLung, chairman of the Institution of Dining Art pointed out that the cluster outbreak has little to do with evening dine-in services as it happened during lunchtime at Mr. Ming’s Chinese Dining. The employees involved were also tested according to regulations. He urged the Centre for Health Protection to investigate whether the restaurant involved violated the regulations i.e. if the distance between the tables, the design of the partitions, the ventilation system, etc., have already met the standards, it is believed that there is no need to tighten measures immediately. He pointed out that the industry has already taken active measures to prevent the epidemic.

As for last year, some experts have proposed to strengthen the ventilation system in restaurants to increase the ventilation rate to 6 times. Wong said that enhancing the ventilation system will cost at least a few hundreds of thousand dollars. The industry has inquired with the FEHD if there will be subsidies. The anti-epidemic anti-epidemic fund proposed by the government earlier was used to compensate employees’ salaries and there is no additional fund to strengthen the ventilation system. Hence, diners are dangerously exposed to the spread of virus via this major avenue.

In addition, the bi-weekly virus testing requirement for catering premises employees is also not effective as evident by the superspreader in Mr. Ming’s Chinese Dining. Even if an employee is tested negative, he/she can be infected the next day and there is a 14-day gap for the employee to spread the virus. Worse still, many diners still do not use the “LeaveHomeSafe” app nor leave their personal particulars complicating the contact tracing work. Many restaurants do not check at the entrance to make sure customers really use the app as someone can just switch on their camera and pretend to scan the app. A diner can write any “Tom, Dick and Harry” as name and leave a fake number. The government can implement a thousand rules but enforcement is inefficacious.

To make matter worse, it was revealed a few days ago that there was a case that was delayed for more than a week before the virus result was obtained. Many local experts criticised the measure as unrealistic. The authorities required employees to undergo tests and only those with negative results will be allowed to work. The mismatched expectation will only anger the industry players further and condone the epidemic in the community to spread further.

According to the research report conducted in South Korea, the restaurant’s ceiling air conditioner, which provided direct airflow from the infected diner to other diners is the main culprit. If so, all existing measures using partitions and 1.5m distance between tables are rendered futile especially most restaurants in Hong Kong are small. As much as the catering premises want to stay open as long as possible, banning dine-in services in the evening would not help but only a complete ban on dine-in services would curb virus spreading. A balance can never be struck with business owners if we want to stop the virus from spreading in catering premises. Furthermore, the government will never resort to such drastic measure again in the absence of any subsidies. We can only hope for citizens to exercise discipline by not spending time in restaurants. Sadly, such advice will only fall on deaf ears as Hongkongers love eating out. Hence, the virus will do what it’s meant to do i.e. to spread via airflow. Meanwhile, the vicious cycle of the blame game will continue until everyone is vaccinated.