Coronavirus: HK’s fearful bar industry braces for alcohol-sales ban as alarming surge in infections continues

26-Mar-2020 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:02 AM Print This Post

Hong Kong’s bars and restaurants were wracked by uncertainty on Tuesday, awaiting the start of a liquor-sales ban that industry insiders warned could wipe out thousands of establishments, as a city already struggling to contain a disturbing surge in coronavirus cases recorded 30 more infections.

Most of the newly confirmed cases taking the tally to 386 had a recent history of travel, and health authorities labelled eating out in company a “high-risk” activity, as McDonald’s became the first major brand to announce a suspension of dine-in services after 6pm in all of its 244 branches from Wednesday.

The city was also facing mounting public alarm and outrage over reports of people flouting mandatory home-quarantine orders, their digital tracking wristbands still visible as they visited restaurants and shops.

More than 400 warning letters had been issued, authorities said, reminding offenders they could be jailed for six months or fined HK$25,000. So far 24 people had been sent to government isolation facilities for breaking home quarantine.

Overseas visitors made a dash to Hong Kong on Tuesday before the ban on foreign travellers became effective at midnight as the city took more drastic steps to shut out imported Covid-19 cases.

Quarantine orders had been issued to 71,000 people arriving from mainland China and 29,000 from overseas, officials said.

Since Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s Monday announcement that alcohol sales would be banned in bars and restaurants to tackle the spread of the coronavirus through social gatherings, the city’s catering industry has been up in arms.

Lam said on Tuesday the government would need at least a few more days to study the legal work before it could be enacted.

Anxious representatives from the catering industry demanded the government subsidise their rent and staff payroll, warning that thousands of restaurants and bars would be forced to close.

Even as they pleaded their case, an infection cluster at the city’s best-known wining and dining nightspot was causing further concern.

Five members of a band that performed at Insomnia, Centre Stage and Dusk Till Dawn clubs at Lan Kwai Fong were confirmed infected, as was a waiter at Insomnia two other members of the band had previously been confirmed to have the coronavirus.

That took to the number of Lan Kwai Fong cases to 17.

“When a bar cannot sell alcohol, it can do other things as many hold restaurant licences as well,” Chief Executive Lam said, when asked if the government could just shut down the establishments and compensate them.

“I understand that the industry has a lot of opinions on this. We are willing to listen. After all, it will take at least a few days for us to study the legal amendments,” she said.

As part of efforts to discourage sizeable gatherings in restaurants, McDonald’s said it would suspend its dine-in services from 6pm to 4am for two weeks starting from Wednesday.

McDonald’s Hong Kong chief executive officer Randy Lai said the franchise wanted to protect staff and customers by doing its part to reduce social contact.

But the move sparked concerns about hundreds of “McRefugees”, mostly homeless people seeking shelter in McDonald’s 24-hour outlets.

Ng Wai-tung, community organiser of the Society for Community Organisation, said some 400 of them could be forced to sleep under bridges or at public parks, and he slammed the government over the homeless problem.

Simon Wong Ka-wo, president of the Hong Kong Federation of Restaurants and Related Trades, said many restaurants had already closed their outlets earlier than scheduled because of a drop in business.

With the impending alcohol ban, he said, the government’s cash allowance scheme announced last month for the industry would not be able to even prevent lay-offs and closures.

Since January, more than 600 restaurants had either closed or suspended business, he added.

Chin Chun-wing, vice-chair of the Hong Kong Bar and Club Association, accused the government of caring little about the industry as he demanded the alcohol ban be offset with pay subsidies and rent concessions.

Chin forecast that half of the 8,600 businesses the government targeted might have to shut down because of the ban.

“It’s an unfair decision. There were confirmed cases last month where large family groups dined or ate hotpot together, but the government did not ban such operations or services,” he said.

Cat Hou Chui-shan, chairwoman of the Bartenders and Mixologists Union of Hong Kong, said: “The government announced [the proposed ban] and made the whole world panic. But it doesn’t have a timeline and it hasn’t told us how it works, it’s quite confusing.”

Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan from the Centre for Health Protection described both eating out with friends and going to music performances as “high-risk” activities.

“If you can ban some public events, you can’t ban the private gatherings. It’s very difficult [to ban] home gatherings or gatherings in private places,” she said.

Of the 30 new patients confirmed infected on Tuesday, aged 15 to 66, 19 had recently travelled abroad.

One of them was a 40-year-old Cathay Pacific flight attendant, who worked on routes to Portugal and Spain.


Category: Hong Kong

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