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Eating Out

So, how’s it going on another very hot (and wet) day in Hong Kong?

Hongkongers dine on the roadside [Hong Kong Free Press]

Across the city, Hongkongers were forced to eat outdoors as the government ban on dine-in services at restaurants kicked in. Photos from local media and the internet showed many people – especially construction workers – sitting on the sidewalks, in gutters and in parks finishing their lunchtime takeaway meals.

[..] “During the sweltering summer, asking workers to eat under the sun and rain is not only inhumane, it also leads to different kinds of hygiene issues. The situation is worrying,” the Construction Site Workers General Union said on Tuesday.

The government’s latest dine-in ban was criticised by both pro-democracy and pro-establishment lawmakers. Democrat Claudia Mo told HKFP that two-persons per table at eateries should be allowed: “Miserable, unthinking, unfeeling bureaucrats taking Hong Kong down the drain.”

For kitchen-less Hong Kongers, new ban on restaurant dining is a bitter pill [Reuters]

Hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers live in subdivided tiny apartments, shared by multiple families and which often do not have kitchen facilities or even if they do, are too cramped to be used often.

“Many people don’t cook or cannot cook. Lots of old people cannot cook. Most of my friends don’t have kitchens - they eat out for every meal,” said a car driver who gave his surname as Chong as he walked through the bustling Wan Chai district where food stalls line the streets.

For the seven-day duration of the ban, people without a kitchen will have to make do with takeout or food purchased at supermarkets.

RTHK offers this response from the government:

With a ban on dine-in services now in effect, health authorities also addressed concerns about some employees, such as construction workers, forced to eat outdoors – sometimes under pouring rain and in groups. Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan from the the Centre for Health Protection (CHP) said even though she doesn’t see an outbreak at construction sites, she urged people to maintain good hygiene and not to talk much while having meals.

But, to be fair, the government are doing something:

There’s more analysis:

Hong Kong was a pandemic poster child. Now it’s a cautionary tale [Washington Post]

At the start of this month, restaurants here had waiting lists , bars were overflowing, and beaches were dotted with umbrellas and sand seekers. Three weeks had elapsed since the last locally transmitted novel coronavirus case, and the pandemic appeared to be down, if not entirely beaten .

All of that progress has come to a halt, as government missteps and a mutated strain of the coronavirus that some scientists believe is more contagious have led to the most severe wave of infections in Hong Kong since the onset of the crisis in January.

So, yes, it's all going very well.

Drastic measures

It’s the sixth day in a row with over 100 COVID-19 cases in Hong Kong.  These seem like quite unusual stats.  We don’t have exponential growth, and this isn’t really “flattening the curve” because that usually comes after weeks of growth.  But whatever we call it, 1100+ cases in the last 2 weeks is obviously putting a strain on hospitals (and quarantine facilities). 

The government seems to be responding in slow motion.  When it emerged that more than 20,000 people had been exempted from testing and self-isolation - and that some of these rules had recently been further relaxed - it seemed a fairly obvious explanation for the surge in cases.  They insisted that it wasn’t - and anyway it was necessary for the economy.  Fortunately, some challenged this argument:      

'People exempt from quarantine behind new wave'

Gabriel Leung, dean of the faculty of medicine at the University of Hong Kong, said that the current wave of Covid-19 infections was brought in from outside of Hong Kong, most likely by people exempted from mandatory quarantine

The government eventually announced several changes to the rules to take effect from July 29th. 

Health experts questioned why the changes would only come into effect from Wednesday rather than immediately, saying such workers were likely to be the reason for the recent surge in infections and that the measures were too little, too late.  [SCMP]

Apart from that, the problem here was not that the government wanted to make life a little easier for sailors, it was that they failed to put in place any proper procedures.  It was surely predictable that sailors would go to places where social distancing was difficult (small restaurants, cheap lodging houses) and potentially infect some of the local population, which seems to be what happened in East Kowloon.     

But the really big news is that Wednesday will bring even more drastic restrictions that will affect almost everyone in Hong Kong.

  • No dine-in at restaurants (for 7 days)
  • 2 person limit on groups gathering
  • Masks to to be compulsory outdoors in public places

No eating out?  Hong Kong has some very tiny apartments (and also a lot of modestly sized apartments with three generations living in close proximity to each other).  Eating out is almost a necessity for many (and a lot more affordable than in other parts of the world), but it will simply not be possible for at least seven days.  One might almost think that our very highly paid Chief Executive and her well-paid advisors and senior civil servants don’t quite understand the way ordinary people live.

Talking of which, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung was asked where working people can have lunch (given the dine-in ban and mask rules): "You can eat takeaway in the office. And we do not have restriction on country parks.”  That’s a great idea - everyone can go to a country park for their lunch (in their chauffeur-driven car, perhaps).

Maybe you can try to work from home in your crowded apartment.  If it’s possible and allowed - and if you work in an office, that is.  Otherwise, well good luck.

Ah, yes, you might say, but there are lots of clusters around restaurants, so action was needed.  Well….one was the very large dinner gathering in Mong Kok which clearly broke the rules that were in place at that time (and 33 people from there have been infected as of yesterday).  A birthday party with 20 tables in a Tuen Mun restaurant led to a similar number of cases and there have been 15 cases from a large group in a Kwai Fong restaurant [more info].

What if the limit of 8 people dining together had been left in place for a while longer?

Meanwhile, it’s hard to see how the limit on gatherings can be enforced.  Or wearing masks outside, for that matter. 

And we have the obvious problem that imposing so many different restrictions will make it impossible to know what has worked.  And people have been staying at home, which must have an effect. 

Watch this space.

Getting worse

So here we are on Day HowLongHasThisBeenGoingOn of COVID-19.

Things in Hong Kong have changed significantly recently with 500 new cases in the last two weeks, mostly locally transmitted and many of unknown origin.

Things are particularly bad in East Kowloon.  There were 40+ cases in restaurants in Tsz Wan Shan Shopping Centre and 50+ in two elderly care homes (a big problem in the UK, Sweden and elsewhere). 

It can’t be a coincidence that this is happening a couple of weeks after many of the restrictions were lifted, including the re-opening of gyms, and more people being allowed in bars, karaoke, restaurants, etc.

Some say it’s the 200,000+ who have come to Hong Kong without being tested or having to quarantine for 14 days.  One theory is that “case zero” in this wave was a taxi driver taking someone from the airport, and it was then spread more widely via a 茶餐廳 (Cha Chaan Teng).  It’s not surprising that people can get infected in a small café.

But wait, it turns out it wasn’t that - it was the pro-democracy march on 1 July and the primaries on 11 & 12 July.  All those people outdoors wearing masks, or briefly indoors wearing masks.

It definitely wasn’t the 100 - 200 people attending a dinner in Mong Kong on 9 July  and not wearing masks, including 40+ people dancing.  This was on a day when 42 new cases were announced and people were reminded to follow the guidelines, which (at that time) included a limit of 50 people gathering in one place.  

Maybe if you’re celebrating the return of Hong Kong to China those rules don’t apply.   But at least four people at that dinner have contracted COVID-19 and it seems certain that there will be more. 

The government announced several measures last week, including the limit on social gathering going back down from 50 to 4, the closure of schools (because that’s what they always do), and all bars, gyms, cinemas and karaoke lounges had to shut down.  Restaurants are not allowed to operate between 6 pm and 5 am - because obviously people are more infectious at night.

Many wondered why the government wasn’t asking civil servants to work from home, and they eventually got around to doing that on 19 July.  The significance of this is that it would encourage other employers to follow suit.  

It was ever thus - at the beginning of all this when we first heard rumours of a SARS-like disease in Wuhan, everyone started wearing masks on public transport and in shopping centres - and the initial response of the government was that this was a bad thing.  Hmmm…   Now, many months later it is compulsory to wear masks on public transport, and yesterday this was extended to all indoor spaces.  The government seems not to have to have enforced their new rules, but they are definitely planning a meeting to arrange for that.

Unsurprisingly, people rushed to supermarkets to stock up on rice and toilet rolls, but without any major supply issues that should pass fairly quickly.