22nd December 2020 – (Hong Kong) A new research from South Korea published last month 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.

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.

Despite the tighter rules of not more than 2 diners per table and not exceeding 50% of seating capacity at catering premises, Hongkongers continue to patronise many restaurants in the past few weeks. Malls are flooded with shoppers during weekends as many have taken their year-end leave to enjoy their breaks in the city. Restaurants have offered festive brunches as dine-in services can only provided till 6pm daily up to 6th January. By shortening the dine-in service hours, restaurants are now more packed than ever during lunch hour and tea time due as most people want to enjoy their time out as much as possible. 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?

Customers queued at City Super in Times Square yesterday afternoon.
Acrylic partitions are used as so-called ‘effective’ measures to ‘prevent’ COVID-19 virus from spreading in restaurants.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, evidence has mounted suggesting that dining out in restaurants especially indoors is among the riskiest activities. In September, a study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that adults with COVID-19 were twice as likely to have dined out in a restaurant in the two weeks prior to their infection. Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, Centre for Health Protection continues to update restaurants visited by COVID-19 patients from Cafe De Coral, Fairwood, Tai Hing branches in multiple districts to fine dining restaurants and casual dining restaurants such as 22 Ships in Wan Chai, 8 1/2 OTTO E MEZZO BOMBANA in Central, Oliver’s Super Sandwiches in Admiralty, Bouchon Bistro Francais in Soho, Cafe Hyatt and Al’s Diner in Soho. Even after the tighter anti-epidemic measures were introduced after 10th December, the list of restaurants visited by COVID-19 patients continues to remain high on a daily basis.

Taking into account the multiple COVID-19 cases involving asymptomatic patients, measuring the temperature of diners at the entrance of catering premises is quite futile. During lunch yesterday, a diner as spotted sneezing and blowing his nose non-stop at Zushi ANA, Shop 1202, 12/F, Times Square, 1 Matheson Street, Causeway Bay. The male diner might not have a fever symptom but by blowing his nose, COVID-19 virus might transmit through the air to infect other people in the restaurant. Sadly, there is currently no law to require catering premises to refuse entry for diners with flu symptoms.

Other studies have suggested ways to keep diners safer without closing down restaurants. For example, last month, researchers at Stanford and Northwestern universities argued it was possible to allow indoor restaurant dining without fearing a COVID-19 spike. The solution, they said, is to lower the maximum occupancy on each indoor establishment based on factors such as the square footage of the establishment.

However, some local experts have warned that if the total daily cases continue to hover at the 100 mark, the government should perhaps shortern the operating hours of shops or consider the ‘stay-at-home’ order. Until then, Hongkongers will continue to organise home parties and Christmas/New Year brunches. It is unlikely that the epidemic situation will subside in the short term.