Coronavirus: Hongkongers flouting four-person group limit face arrest, as local infection tally hits 582

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

Hongkongers could face arrest if they breach a four-person limit on public gatherings imposed to curb a resurgent coronavirus outbreak, officials warned on Saturday.

They urged people to comply with the regulation and also avoid visiting ancestral graves for the coming Ching Ming Festival.

Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee revealed more details on the latest anti-epidemic measures just hours before cinemas, gyms and other venues shut down for two weeks, and restaurants began running at half capacity.

She said the success of the law would hinge not on the number of prosecutions, but on the improvement of the public health situation, admitting manpower was a concern in enforcing the new legislation.

“The importance of the law is not only to provide a legal framework, but to send a signal to the public that social distancing at this juncture is crucial in our public health measures,” Chan said. “We would really appeal to, and count on the support and cooperation of, our general public in terms of self-discipline… Enforcement, of course, is there, but this is not the main thrust.”

“Our purpose is not to arrest and prosecute people,” the minister added.

By midnight on Saturday, the city’s tally of Covid-19 infections stood at 582, after a daily count of 64 new confirmed cases. Many recent infections involved overseas returnees, while a cluster of cases involving live-music bars had also become a cause for concern, putting more pressure on residents to practise social distancing.

Among the cases revealed on Saturday, 47 had recent travel history, while 26 of them were returning students.

From Sunday, gatherings of more than four people in public spaces will be banned for 14 days, though there will be no limit on how many people can congregate in private settings or at work. Neither will the rule apply to public transport, weddings, funerals, courts or government buildings and meetings.

People who flout the new law could be fined up to HK$25,000 (US$3,220) and given a six-month jail sentence, according to the latest amendments to the Prevention and Control of Disease Ordinance.

“Grave sweeping is regulated under the rule on having [at most] four people [in public spaces],” Chan said just a week ahead of Ching Ming Festival, the important holiday which falls on April 4 this year, during which Hongkongers take flowers and food to visit the graves of their ancestors.

But, since a gathering of people from the same household is exempted from the cap, a family of six living together could still go grave sweeping, her deputy Howard Chan added, while appealing to people to nonetheless postpone their plans.

The police force, and officers in charge of managing certain venues, will be authorised to enforce the law, with powers to break up gatherings, patrol venues and record violators’ personal details. Police could arrest anyone who does not heed their orders.

Civic Party lawmaker Kwok Ka-ki said he was worried police could abuse the new powers to suppress residents. “I am worried about upcoming protests. For example, there are people around you, you claim you are not in a group of four, but they insist. Then what can you do?”

“I worry there will be a lot of arbitrary arrests and disputes,” he said.

Pro-establishment lawmaker Ann Chiang Lai-wan, chairwoman of the legislature’s health services panel, urged officers to be lenient, saying residents might not be aware of the regulations, adding that they should issue warnings first.

In a separate measure, which kicked in at 6pm on Saturday, restaurants had to limit the number of diners at each table to four, with each table 1.5 metres apart. They would also have to operate at half their capacity, as would bars. Venues would be obliged to check customers’ temperatures and provide hand sanitiser.

The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department was tasked with performing spot checks, and violators in the catering industry would face a maximum penalty of a HK$50,000 fine and six months in jail.

While restaurants rushed to follow the new rules in the evening, Simon Wong Kit-lung, chair of listed restaurant chain LH Group, said spot checks had already conducted at two of his outlets, just half an hour after the laws took effect.

Some small restaurants reportedly found it hard to space out customers, as their premises were so cramped.

Six types of establishment that attract large gatherings cinemas, fitness centres, saunas, party venues, gaming centres and other leisure venues such as pool halls would also be shut for two weeks.

But karaoke lounges and mahjong parlours were exempted. Chan said the karaoke lounges held restaurant licences, and so the requirements for eateries also would apply to them.

Two major karaoke chains, RedMR and Neway, promised to safeguard the health of customers.

RedMR said each room would serve a maximum of four customers, who would be required to wear masks when they enter.

Neway said it would clean rooms and microphones after use, while its table arrangements would follow government guidelines.

But concerns remained. “Karaoke lounges are not comparable to restaurants,” infectious disease expert Dr Joseph Tsang Kay-yan said, adding that customers might sit close to each other and it would be hard to monitor if people wore masks in the rooms.

“It’s not just about eating,” he said.


Category: Hong Kong

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