28th March 2020 – (Hong Kong) Professor Wai-Keung Chan from Hong Kong Polytechnic University criticised the Chief Executive, Carrie Lam today for proposing the alcohol ban without going through a proper thought process resulting in many industry players to voice their displeasure. She finally succumbed to the pressure and implemented blanket regulations on the entire catering industry instead.

Carrie Lam mentioned yesterday that the gathering of less than 4 people was derived not based on scientific research but on similar measures deployed by other countries. Professor Chan said that the 4 people can still transmit within one another and in a space-constrained city like Hong Kong. In a small eatery, it’s impossible to keep a social distancing with other tables. Instead, he proposed that all F&B outlets should be closed down similar to other entertainment outlets, fitness centres etc in order to be more effective in the medium term.

Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development, Mr Edward Yau said today that the measures going to be introduced tonight and tomorrow night are necessary to strengthen social distancing as an important step in fighting against the coronavirus and he thinks it’s a balancing situation for the companies, the sectors and also the society as a whole.  But on balance, he also thinks that people going to cinemas have dropped to such a low rate, taking a pause and closing down the cinemas for two weeks, might help to send a very clear signal to the community that the best way to handle the situation is to stay home and to avoid unnecessary social contacts. The burning question is, will Hongkongers cook at their tiny apartments for two weeks?

In Hong Kong, the Secretary for Food and Health (SFH) will issue a notice in the Gazette today that will last for 3 months to prohibit group gatherings with more than four people in public places, which will take effect at 0.00am on 29th March for 14 days. According to the government, maintaining social distancing is key to delay the spread of COVID-19 in Hong Kong. Hence, the measure will be extended within the three months’ period or longer if the need arises and we foresee the situation will get worse and the pandemic will go into a vicious cycle of high and low seasons until the vaccine or antidote is found. The use of the word ‘delay’ has further confirmed that the pandemic will not go away so soon, not for at least another 15-18 months.

Furthermore, there are exemptions on the prohibition on gatherings. While we understand that group gathering to provide basic and governmental, epidemic control services is unavoidable, group gathering of not more than 20 persons during a wedding ceremony at which no food or drink is served is nonsensical as a gathering is still a gathering. The virus is airborne and there will also be staff members who will assist in a wedding ceremony. It is impossible to contain the virus whether the group gathering consists of 4 or 20 people. Further, the government will never be able to stop the sociable bunch from holding house parties at their homes.

Meanwhile, the Secretary for Food and Health (SFH) issues two directions for 14 days through a notice published in the Gazette that will last 3 months. The directions will take effect at 6pm on 28th March. This restriction applies to restaurants, canteens, cafes, eateries, pubs, bars, etc. but does not cover a catering business carried on at private dwellings, or operating in hospitals and institutions, etc. The affected premises are still allowed to sell or supply food and/or drink for takeaway and deliveries.

Direction 1 affects Catering Business which includes all F&B outlets. The relevant requirements include:

(a) the number of customers at any premises on which food or drink is sold or supplied for consumption on the premises (catering premises) at any one time must not exceed 50% of the normal seating capacity of the premises;
(b) tables available for use or being used by customers within any catering premises must be arranged in a way to ensure there is a distance of at least 1.5 metres or some form of partition which could serve as effective buffer between one table and another table at the premises;
(c) no more than 4 persons may be seated together at one table within any catering premises;
(d) a person must wear a mask at any time within any catering premises, except when the person is consuming food or drink on the premises;
(e) body temperature screening on a person must be conducted before the person is allowed to enter the catering premises; and
(f) hand sanitizers must be provided at any catering premises for any person at the premises.

The 2nd Direction requires all premises as listed below must be closed:

(a) Amusement game centres;
(b) Bathhouses;
(c) Fitness centres;
(d) Places of amusement;
(e) Places of public entertainment; and
(f) Premises that are maintained or intended to be maintained for hire for holding social gatherings (commonly known as “party room”).

Hong Kong is geographically different from other cities as it has the densest population per square foot in the world. Hence, a group gathering of 4 will be considered excessive if they are to sit around a table in a tiny restaurant. Many restaurants and eateries in Hong Kong are small and to maintain a 1.5m distance between tables is almost impossible for them. A lot are prepared to shut down instead as they will not be able to comply with the new regulation. The Hong Kong Federation of Restaurants & Related Trades has urged the government to provide more relief measures for those who are affected.

To wear a mask in between meals in a restaurant is not practical as the virus can spread via multiple mediums from the chopsticks usually stored in a canister on each table to the serving bowl or glass touched by an infected waiter. The virus will not stop transmitting the moment when we are having meals. In fact, it is probably easier for the virus to go through our mouth when we are sitting still to eat and drink. The new regulation also makes no reference to the compulsory use of gloves on all serving staff or prohibition of unused cutlery being placed on the table at all times. Environmental-friendly and disposable cutleries should be used instead and all tables/chairs should be immediately disinfected after each diner leaves. The washroom in the restaurant is also a potential area to spread the virus and the restaurant must also be required by law to disinfect it after each usage. More FEHD officers and other enforcement officials will have to be deployed to ensure compliance of the new regulations.

In practice, can all these rules be implemented? Facing a sharp fall in revenue and a shortage in manpower, it is almost impracticable to require restaurant owners to implement more stringent rules similar to what we have proposed. No restaurant in Hong Kong has the same nonnative design as Ichiran Ramen where all diners sit in partitioned cubicles and they make no contact with the staff. The management of Ichiran Ramen probably predicted the epidemic years ago.

Ichiran Ramen.

Realistically, in order to delay (not to stop the epidemic) the spread of the virus more effectively, the most sensible solution to do at least for now will be to close down all F&B outlets and provide relief measures for affected businesses since there are increasing cases of undetected community infections that are linked to LKF cluster now. We are pretty sure the existing gazetted measures will be extended beyond the 14-day period if the situation does not improve. Even if the total number of infection will drop, Hongkongers will become lax again and go out in larger groups to dine and party to ‘celebrate’ the freedom until the return of new cases. If these new restrictions are gazetted for 3 months (including the ban of tourists), this means that the government is already prepared to curb freedom of movement during this period. Nevertheless, not even an optimist or Nostradamus will know for sure if the situation will improve after 3 months.

Don’t forget many Hongkongers still need to go to their office and take the public transport which can be crowded at peak hours. None of the measures addressed this situation to reduce social contact between strangers on MTR and colleagues at office. Also, the second direction seems to have excluded karaokes and mahjong outlets which do not fall under the category of entertainment outlets. However, karaokes do fall under the purview of F&B business and hence the regulations under the first direction will apply.

South Korea recorded an increase of 146 cases as of today, just as everyone thought that the country is recovering, the total number of cases is going up again. As we said earlier, the brutal cycle will continue until the vaccine or antidote is found. Meanwhile, the world should shut down to its bare minimum but unfortunately, it is easier said than done as livelihood is at stake and money will run out faster than lives.

Nonetheless, if the total number of infections keeps rising in the next 10 days, perhaps, the most draconian measure of ‘stay-at-home’ order will have to be deployed. The impact of the ‘stay-at-home’ order on Hong Kong residents will be more perilous in comparison with other cities due to the miniature size of most apartments. The hardcore poor live in ‘caged’ homes and 50sqf sub-divided flats smaller than a prison cell or a car park. The number of people expected to flout the ‘stay-at-home’ rule, if applied, will be far greater than those who breached the home quarantine orders.

The hardcore poor in Hong Kong live in caged homes.

The fight against this epidemic involves a combination of self-discipline of everyone and effective government measures. This is haplessly the most difficult combination of strategies as humans by nature do not like to have their freedom curtailed. As we said in our previous article that,

It is virtually impossible to eradicate the infection all over the world unless everyone starts to become a hermit for at least 1 month.

This hypothetical and efficacious solution is sadly the ‘antidote’ in the current state of affairs. Meanwhile, to ‘delay’ the epidemic, the government should shut down all F&B outlets as the current measures have too many loopholes and reduce gathering to 2 instead of 4 or impose the ‘stay-at-home’ order to get things done. We understand the predicament of the government to comfort the business owners at one end and to fight against the epidemic at the other extreme. In whatever way, it is not viable to have a potent impact if only half-baked measures are put into practice. Stay stern, Hong Kong be like Macau.