‘Everything will go back to zero’: Hong Kong businesses cry foul over abrupt return of tough social-distancing measures

·5-min read

The abrupt return of tough anti-pandemic restrictions amid a local Omicron outbreak has been met with shock and dismay by affected industries, with the beleaguered catering sector in particular crying foul, predicting losses of up to HK$8 billion (US$1.03 billion) as a result.

The revival of strict social-distancing rules will see dine-in service in restaurants end at 6pm, reduced caps on the number of patrons eateries can seat and the closure of 15 types of businesses – including fitness centres, beauty parlours, cinemas, theme parks, bars and pubs – for two weeks starting on Friday.

Simon Wong Ka-wo, president of the Hong Kong Federation of Restaurants and Related Trades, which represents more than 8,000 eateries, said the rule change came as a shock, particularly after city leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said just a day before that there were no plans for fresh coronavirus restrictions.

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“January and February are the peak seasons for restaurants due to Chinese Near Year. We had already received many reservations, hired temporary workers and ordered food to cope with the peaks. Now they are no longer needed. The announcement poses a great loss to our business,” he said.

Wong predicted the new rules would wipe out some 40 per cent of the sector’s revenues for the month of January – or some HK$4 billion – just in the two-week period delineated by authorities. Even if the restrictions ended then, he said, reluctance to dine out could linger through the Lunar New Year period, causing that figure to double.

Noting that more than 1,000 restaurants had gone under since the start of the pandemic, Wong said he expected matters to get worse if the tightened social-distancing measures persisted.

Chief executive Lam on Wednesday acknowledged that the decision was difficult, and asked businesses for their “understanding”, noting that many had been able to operate relatively unfettered nearly a year while the local pandemic situation was under control.

But Wong was not in an understanding mood on Wednesday, saying: “Lam asked us to bear the short-term labour pain, but do we see a light at the end of the tunnel? … The government should at least give us some financial support.”

Ray Chui Man-wai, chairman of catering industry body the Institute of Dining Art, said the food and beverage sector would be the “biggest victim” of the latest round of restrictions, and questioned whether they would even help curb infections.

“I understand the number of untraceable cases has been on the rise, but can a restaurant curfew help control the outbreak?” he said, noting many businesses had only just started seeing their fortunes improve after months of lacklustre takings.

Chui said he was also sceptical that the measures would be lifted after two weeks, pointing out that it took nearly four months to beat back the last wave of infections that erupted in late 2020.

Bars, gyms to close, 6pm restaurant curfew as Hong Kong ramps up Omicron battle

Meanwhile, the Lan Kwai Fong Association, which represents more than 100 businesses in the nightlife hub, said its business would be hit especially hard, as it relied on late-night crowds.

“On New Year Eve, nearly all of our members were fully reserved,” association director Anthea Cheung said. “But due to the new measures, everything will go back to zero.”

Cheung said some members were considering arranging unpaid leave and dismissing part-time staff in order to cut costs.

But eateries and watering holes are not the only affected businesses, with gyms also poised to take a hit.

Local gyms are also poised to take a hit once the stricter rules return. Photo: Xiaomei Chen
Local gyms are also poised to take a hit once the stricter rules return. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

Marc Guyon, owner of MGK Fight Club in Discovery Bay, said the latest measures were “a nail in the coffin” for his martial arts studio, and estimated HK$150,000 in losses over the next 14 days.

“I don’t think it will just be two weeks. I see it going into six to eight weeks. It’s a complete disaster,” Guyon said. “We were just starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel after recovering from the fourth wave, and now there is a fifth wave.”

Guyon received HK$100,000 in subsidies from the government during the fourth wave, but said the money was not enough to cover costs. He said he hoped fresh funds from the government would help him ride out the coming closure, but was pessimistic about the future of his business.

One industry representative was incensed that the new measures applied to spas as well, in spite of the hygiene protocols in place. Photo: Dickson Lee.
One industry representative was incensed that the new measures applied to spas as well, in spite of the hygiene protocols in place. Photo: Dickson Lee.

Jimmy Chow Chun-yu, the president of the Hong Kong Licensed Massage Association – another affected sector – said the blanket closure “came out of nowhere”, and accused authorities of targeting his industry unfairly.

“Massage parlours were never part of any clusters, and we followed hygiene protocols very strictly. There are usually only two people in one room. There should be a stronger reason why we have to close” said Chow. “I would rather they enforce a vaccine passport than to just shut us down.”

Chow estimated around 10,000 employees would be affected, as the weeks before the New Year holiday were usually a peak period for massage parlours and spas.

Coronavirus: Hong Kong suspends ‘cruises to nowhere’ for 2 weeks

Meanwhile, Canto-pop singer Hins Cheung King-hin, who had eight concerts lined up at the Hong Kong Coliseum from Thursday evening, announced the shows would be postponed, saying he “viewed everyone’s health and public safety as a priority”.

The play One Last Gift, starring comedian Dayo Wong Tse-wah, was also forced to postpone at least 14 of its 40 sold-out shows, which had been set to begin on Friday. The play was to be Wong’s comeback performance after a five-year absence from the stage.

Organiser Emperor Group said arrangements for the rest of the shows would be announced at a later date.

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