24th March 2020 – (Hong Kong)  There were a total of 39 additional confirmed cases of COVID-19 reported yesterday, taking the number of cases to 357 in Hong Kong so far (comprising 356 confirmed cases and one probable case). The newly reported cases announced yesterday involve 22 males and 17 females aged between 18 and 66. While most of the cases were imported, there have been evidence of an increase in the community outbreak in the past few days. 10 people who attended a wedding reception at Auberge Discovery Bay Hotel including the groom, mother-in-law and wedding host were infected with COVID-19. The wedding was attended by over 80 guests and the Centre for Health Protection (CHP) is still tracing them.

Meanwhile, four confirmed patients in cases 169, 208, 277, and 315 had participated in a private party at Studio 9, 9/F, Union Industrial Building, 48, Wong Chuk Hang Road on the 14th of this month. The private party was attended by over 100 people. 3 of the 4 infected patients knew each other and they were friends. Centre for Health Protection has already contacted the venue owner to investigate further.

Studio 9,  a gallery space for design and creativity which mainly promotes interior design products and design culture in general has since confirmed in an email to us that the venue only provided the space. The incident raised a few eyebrows as to why Studio 9 would allow booking of the venue at the height of the coronavirus outbreak.

The 343rd case is a musician who works in Lan Kwai Fong including INSOMNIA bar and he tested positive on 22nd March. There are a total of around 12 confirmed cases linked to the LKF and Soho cluster. They have visited multiple establishments in the area include VOLAR, Brickhouse,  KINSHIP at 2-4 Shelly Street, Kagesha Lounge in H CODE, Draftland, Pure Fitness etc resulting in the businesses to record an almost 95% drop last weekend. In addition, CHP also announced that the 266th case worked at a coffee equipment company at 66, Hollywood Road together with his 2 colleagues i.e. 319th and 324th yesterday. The company has 16 employees and they were being tested at the hospital. 

Meanwhile, the Chief Executive announced a series of new measures to curb imported cases which include a ban on all tourists effective from 25th March and suspension of all transit services at Hong Kong International Airport.

‘To further reduce social contacts and gatherings, the Government will invoke the Prevention and Control of Disease Ordinance (Cap. 599) to introduce legislation to temporarily prohibit the sale and supply of alcoholic drinks by about 8,600 restaurants, bars and clubs with liquor licences in Hong Kong. The Government will also discuss with members of the restaurant industry on ways to further reduce gatherings (such as wedding banquets and other celebration activities) and how restaurants can reduce customers’ risk of infection during meals. If the effect of voluntary actions taken by the industry is not good, the Government will consider introducing regulations through the above-mentioned legislation. In addition, the Government will request the clubs on private recreational leases to immediately close all of their recreational and sports facilities, changing rooms and play rooms for young children in the clubs. The Government also appeals to other private clubs and gymnasia to adopt the same measure to reduce the risk of the spread of the virus.’ Carrie Lam said, “Since the situation continues to evolve drastically, the Government must make prompt responses to roll out more measures, and it will continue to do so down the road.”

The more stringent anti-epidemic measures introduced by the Macao government are often announced earlier than Hong Kong, including the decisive order to suspend casinos, cinemas, karaokes and other entertainment venues for more than half a month earlier last month.  Cases dropped to zero for over 40 days before new imported cases started to surface. In response, Macau government also implemented new anti-epidemic measures on all arrivals today. However, the situation is drastically different in Macau as all new cases to-date are imported and traceable. No community outbreak has taken place. In comparison, in Hong Kong, the LKF, Discovery Bay wedding and Studio 9 private party cluster may trigger a fresh round of community outbreak. Besides, there have been reported cases where people flouted the home quarantine order, at least 36 are placed on wanted list and several were arrested and placed in Chun Yeung Estate for mandatory quarantine. All these could become loose cannons to escalate the pandemic situation in the city.

Dr. Gabriel Leung, Dean of the Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine of the University of Hong Kong expressed on 22nd March that the number of confirmed cases may reach a new high over the next weekend. Leung suggested that Hong Kong people should pursue “three-tiered anti-epidemic” measure in the next week or two, including self-discipline, reduce social contact and reduction of unnecessary travel, restaurants should consider closing at night, or just offer take-out food, or re-arrange tables and chairs in the restaurant so that diners can sit in the same direction to reduce the chances of infection. If the response to the epidemic still does not work, he said that the government should emulate the UK’s order to close down bars, restaurants, cinemas (a customer who visited AMC cinema in Pacific Place tested positive), fitness centres (4 Pure Fitness members and 1 Fitness First member have been tested positive in HK so far) and other places in the city, but at the same time subsidize 80% of the income of grassroots and provide relief measures for businesses.

However, we think that the Hong Kong government should not delay further as the window for infection has been kept wide open while steps are being discussed to suspend the liquor licence and reduce gatherings. A blanket suspension similar to Macau and U.K. on restaurants, bars, gyms, karaokes and other entertainment venues should have been implemented yesterday. The suspension of 8,600 liquor licences may deter a large number of bars and clubs to commence businesses but we believe that some desperate bar operators would still continue to offer cheap mocktails to lure customers. Hong Kong is different from other cities in the world as most homes are small, many people won’t be able to sit at home for days and the sociable bunch will go out again to drink mocktails and hold after-parties at home. Many were still spotted in Soho and Wan Chai yesterday as the ban on alcohol licence has yet to take effect. On 20th March, British drinkers made a last-minute dash to pubs after the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson made a shocking announcement to close down all bars, clubs, restaurants, theatres and gyms. We foresee a similar scenario to take place in Hong Kong before the suspension of all liquor licences.

Desperate pubs in Hong Kong will soon offer mocktails as an alternative to alcoholic drinks.

In addition, Prime Minister Johnson announced order to U.K. residents to stay home for next three weeks except for essential reasons amid coronavirus outbreak. Johnson said that all shops selling non-essential goods would be closed, along with libraries and places of worship, and that all social events would be stopped other than funerals. UK called in army and warns people to stay home or face lockdown.

In Australia, the government has to close down Bondi beach after residents failed to heed its advice to stay indoors.

Beachgoers swarm Bondi in Sydney, Australia, on Friday. John Fotiadis/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock.

It is human nature to defy orders once their freedom has been curtained. They will not want to be locked down at home as long as there is no stringent law to stop them from doing so. If Hong Kong government continues to take a soft stand by ‘advising’ its people to keep a social distance and reduce gatherings’, it will continue to fall on deaf ears. Hongkongers still continue to visit gyms, go out in large groups of more than 2 people, queue at eateries to eat during lunch hours. The main problem in the city is the scarcity of space. How can people realistically keep a social distance when they have to sit in close proximity to each other at many tiny food establishments? Even if they do not go out and drink at night, Hongkongers still continue to eat out during the day. As soon as they are inside a restaurant, they remove their masks and this is exactly the time when virus can spread easily.

Hong Kong eateries are small and tight.
Hongkongers are forced to sit in close proximity during meals.

Not only will the virus continue to spread effortlessly in the city area, but the situation can deteriorate as Hongkongers who love to travel are now stranded. They will increase outdoor activities including hiking during the weekends as they assume that they will not get infected in the open air. Most hikers did not even wear masks in the last few weekends at various hiking locations.

Hongkongers have increased their outdoor activities in the past few weeks.
Many people continued to visit the G024 gym in Kennedy Town yesterday at 7.20pm.

The last thing we want (but unfortunately is still the most effective measure) is the compulsory stay-at-home order if the total number of local community cases continues to rise. Only if all of us could just try to overcome this critical moment by heeding the government’s advice to avoid social gatherings and reduce contacts, the spread of the virus can be suppressed or delayed until the antidote is found. However, many Hongkongers, just like the rest of the world are rebellious. They are akin to teenagers who do not want their freedom restricted.

The cinema at AMC Pacific Place was closed on 20th to 21st March after a customer was confirmed to be infected with COVID-19 on 18th March. All staff were quarantined for 14 days.

At present, all restaurants, retail outlets and gyms including Pure Fitness/Fitness First have been practising a 14-day suspension of business whenever a case is detected. Their staff are normally arranged for home-quarantine if a case is detected. However, is this a long-term solution to curb the spread of the virus? If a second case is detected again in the same establishment, does this mean that the business will close again for 2 weeks for disinfecting procedure? This futile measure of ‘closing for 2 weeks’ whenever a new case is detected serves no practical purpose. Most F&B outlets are still operating their businesses with the mindset that ‘If no customer is infected in our restaurant, we are COVID-19 free and the business will be carried out as usual.’ Most restaurants and bars do not even take body temperature of diners or prepare health declaration forms for customers to fill. The added procedure would be considered too intimidating for them. Having lax rules means that there will bound to be new cases in the near future.

However, having said that, it is important for the government to provide relief measures for employers and employees in the industry who are affected including immediate support with emergency unemployment benefits to all hourly and salaried workers, temporary suspension of MPF contributions, temporary freeze on rental by landlords and a reduction in personal and corporate taxes in addition to cash subsidies.

In summary, the government should immediately close down all eateries, gyms, karaokes, cinemas and other entertainment outlets and allow only deliveries/take-away. Meeting of more than 2 people should be banned. Failing which, stay-at-home order should be implemented as a last resort as the world goes into lockdown.

An online rumour has been circulated on social media today to announce the following:

The Chief Executive will hold a press conference at 3:30 p.m. to take strict measures to prevent the spread of the virus. From midnight, all people will be blocked from entering and leaving Hong Kong. Only takeout meals and delivery are allowed at all restaurants and bars. All restaurants / shopping malls / supermarkets / markets / shops, etc. will only be allowed to open until 8 p.m. All public transportation agencies including buses and MTR will only be available until 9 p.m., all overnight transportation will be suspended tonight.
From midnight, the Chief Executive will authorise all disciplined services personnel which include the Civil Aid Service and Auxiliary Medical Service, as well as civil servants of individual law enforcement agencies to take enforcement actions. If someone does not comply with the relevant laws or violates isolation orders such as epidemic prevention orders, he/she will be arrested and prosecuted immediately.
The next seven days require all employers in Hong Kong to reduce the number and time of work and arrange at least half of their employees to work from home.”

 Unfortunately, the government issued a statement to refute the rumour just now and said that it was absolutely unfounded and that the content of the concerned online post is totally fabricated. “We strongly condemn the spread of the rumours and appeal to the public to stay united in this difficult period as we fight against the disease,” the spokesman said.

It is either Hongkongers stay united to heed the advice to avoid social contact or the government has to go down harsh on restricting movement in the city.