Hundreds of partygoers gathered in Hong Kong’s entertainment district Lan Kwai Fong on Friday night to welcome the return of longer opening hours, as the city eased social-distancing measures in a move some bar owners lamented had come too late.
Empty seats were spotted in the buzzing Central area for what would typically have been the post-work rush ahead of the weekend, but crowds of revellers were later seen streaming into the bars.
Under the downgraded Covid-19 rules taking effect on Friday, the number of people allowed to a table increased from four to six in restaurants, and two to four at drinking venues.
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Other changes include an extension of business hours to 2am in bars and clubs, and a rise in the seating capacity of restaurants, pubs and nightclubs from 50 per cent to 75 per cent.
At about 9.30pm, nearly 50 customers were smoking shisha, enjoying pizzas and drinking beer at Gurkha, a local bar.
But its owner, Bir Bahadur Ghale, 55, said: “It’s supposed to be all full [by 8pm], but now we have 80 per cent less customers [in general].”
Ghale also said he received a one-off subsidy of HK$130,000 (US$16,768) from the government to tide his business over the difficult period brought about by the pandemic and the associated social-distancing measures.
But he said the relief was not enough to keep up with rental expenses, which alone cost about HK$400,000 a month.
“The government needs to do more, otherwise we will have to put up the shutters in the next few months,” Ghale said.
As the hours passed, more partygoers were seen heading to Lan Kwai Fong. At 9.30pm, long queues were seen outside several clubs, with most outdoor tables at bars filled with partygoers, mostly gathering in groups of two to five.
Dozens of police officers were seen using loudspeakers to remind revellers of the rule to avoid congregating in numbers exceeding four people.
Josh Mok, 28, who was drinking with two friends, said he was not worried about catching the virus. “I feel safe, I’m not too worried. If I get the virus, I’m not afraid I’ll infect anyone who’s at risk. Compared to last year, [Lan Kwai Fong] it’s more calm, but I actually like it.”
A reveller in her 30s, surnamed Chan, was celebrating Halloween with her colleagues after work. She said it was important to ensure bars survived the slump caused by the pandemic.
“We want to support local businesses and feed the Hong Kong economy, I don’t want these bars to close,” she said.
Allan Zeman, the biggest landlord in Lan Kwai Fong, welcomed the rules revision, saying “many bars were already on life support”.
He said some bar owners told him they had been struggling to pay rent. If the strict social-distancing norms were not lifted, it would have resulted in the closure of many bars and loss of jobs by the end of this month, he added.
After months of intense restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus, the Hong Kong government is under immense pressure to get the economy moving again.
As of September, the city’s 1,280 bars and pubs had suffered estimated losses of HK$260 million (US$33.3 million) due to coronavirus-related closures.
The Pontiac, on Old Bailey Street, will have to close by 1am as it is located in a residential area.
Co-owner Beckaly Franks said they would ask their customers to abide by the rules, and had measures in place such as temperatures checks on arrival and glass partitions.
“We are trying to encourage people to party responsibly,” Franks said.
Bryan Lee, the owner of Wanchai Stadium on Lockhart Road, said the rules should have been relaxed “long ago”.
“We expect the evening to be busy because it’s also a holiday weekend,” he said, adding he hoped the changes would boost his business by up to 30 per cent.
Origin, on Wyndham Street, also welcomed being able to increase its seating capacity per table from two to four persons. Its owner, Charlene Dawes, said that move was vital, as people generally liked to go out in groups.
“Late-night businesses could see their earnings go up by around 50 per cent. So, it will definitely be a big deal for those guys,” Dawes said.
Live performances will also be allowed in nightclubs, pubs and restaurants for the first time since June. But performers are required to wear masks, perform from behind partitions and stay at least 1.5m (4.9 feet) from patrons.
Catering sector lawmaker and executive councillor Tommy Cheung Yu-yan said the performers should be allowed to work.
“There are 2,000 such performers in the city. All of them had been out of work for the last six months, my heart goes out to them. I felt bad that they had been excluded from work.”
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