Hong Kong fourth wave: city battles latest Covid-19 surge with venue closures, dining restrictions, tip line for turning in social-distancing violators

Victor Ting
·9-min read

Key points:

• Civil servants to work from home starting on Wednesday

• More venues such as game centres, theme parks, karaoke lounges and mahjong parlours to be closed for at least two weeks

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• Only two people at a time allowed to gather in public or sit at a restaurant table

• Fixed penalty for violating social-distancing rules to be sharply increased

• Hotline to be set up for reporting offenders

• Two hotels to be designated solely for quarantine use

• Five more community testing centres to open this week, bringing total to 14

Hong Kong will return to a series of tough social-distancing measures to tackle a spreading surge of Covid-19 infections, restricting public gatherings to only two people at a time, reducing restaurant dine-in hours, closing more entertainment venues, making civil servants work from home, sharply raising fines for non-compliance and even setting up a hotline to report offenders.

As health authorities confirmed another 76 cases on Monday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor denied being too slow to take decisive action, suggesting instead that the pandemic’s escalating fourth wave would not have been so severe if members of the public themselves had been more mindful of the risks.

“I wouldn’t say that we have reacted too slowly. If you ask me, individual measures have been introduced in the same manner or even in an accelerated manner than the previous wave,” she said.

“If every member of the community sticks to the rules of wearing a mask, no close contact, no social gatherings, and stays home as far as possible, we would not have seen this major cluster involving over 500 confirmed cases and more to come. So, do you want to blame the Hong Kong people as well? Let’s face it. Now is not the time for argument. Now is not the time for blaming which party. This is a time for solidarity.”

She was referring specifically to a still-expanding “super spreader” outbreak involving dance venues across the city, with another 40 infections taking the tally to 519.

Restaurants will once again be restricted to two diners per table and forced to end dine-in service at 10pm each night under new anti-pandemic measures. Photo: Winson Wong
Restaurants will once again be restricted to two diners per table and forced to end dine-in service at 10pm each night under new anti-pandemic measures. Photo: Winson Wong

“The figure on Monday was slightly lower, but I don’t want the public to mistakenly reckon that the peak of the epidemic is over already,” Lam said, after 115 new infections were confirmed the previous day.

Among the new measures to be rolled out on Wednesday, most of the city’s 177,700 civil servants will once again be required to work from home, apart from those providing emergency and essential on-site services. This time, the Social Welfare Department’s offices dealing with comprehensive social security assistance applications will be deemed essential and stay open.

Entertainment and leisure venues such as game centres, theme parks, karaoke lounges, mahjong parlours and swimming pools will be shut down.

Government performance venues will be open only for rehearsals and online streaming events.

We are now closing everything, almost everything, except the restaurants, because they are meeting the daily needs of the people

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam

Gyms, sports venues and beauty parlours will be allowed to stay open, but with additional restrictions. Those who use sports facilities will be limited to two people at a time.

Restaurants will be required to stop dine-in services at 10pm daily, two hours earlier than the existing cut-off point. The number of patrons permitted at each table will be reduced from four to two, as will the number of people per group allowed to gather in public.

“We are now closing everything, almost everything, except the restaurants, because they are meeting the daily needs of the people,” Lam said.

“We are allowing a little bit of gym activities, because people need these sorts of things to keep themselves healthy, whether physically or mentally.”

The new rules will stay in force for at least two weeks.

Lam’s order marks the third time government employees have been told to work from home since the start of the pandemic earlier this year.

Hong Kong’s civil servants are being told to work from home for the third time since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: Nora Tam
Hong Kong’s civil servants are being told to work from home for the third time since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: Nora Tam

The chief executive described the latest resurgence of infections as “very severe”, noting the daily average for the past seven days was 87, with most locally transmitted. More than 100 cases reported over the same period did not have a known source. Nine of Monday’s new cases were untraceable.

More than 30 schools have already been closed during the current wave because of infections among pupils or staff, and nine civil servants across different departments have also contracted the coronavirus.

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Much tougher fines for those violating anti-pandemic measures are in the pipeline as well.

“Law enforcement must achieve a preventative effect, and thus we must raise the penalty,” Lam said. “The fixed penalty now is HK$2,000 (US$258); we need to raise this, hopefully multiple times over.”

Existing fixed-penalty tickets are currently issued for violations of three regulations: the limit on public gatherings; mask-wearing in public places; and mandatory testing.

Lam said raising the penalty would require the approval of the Executive Council, her de facto cabinet.

She also announced that a hotline would be set up for reporting violations of the rules.

“I hope people will not overreact. This is not sort of monitoring people and so on. People are jointly shouldering part of the responsibility, given the very serious pandemic situation that we are now facing,” she said.

Lam went on to warn against taking advantage of the absence of specific restrictions on parties held in private premises, including yachts.

“Regarding those private yacht activities … if there are advertisements asking people to join or people could join after paying, we could enforce the law and we would do so,” she said.

On the lack of new relief packages for businesses that would be hit hard by the restrictions, Lam said her government had already committed 10 per cent of the city’s GDP to help struggling industries.

“The public finance situation is equally very dire as in the case of the pandemic situation … we have no plans yet to do another round of relief measures,” she said.

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One of Lam’s pandemic advisers and a vocal advocate for tougher measures, Professor David Hui Shu-cheong, welcomed the tougher line and rejected suggestions that it was too late.

“The government actually went further in its measures today in restricting gatherings to two people. The experts only told her to shut restaurants after 10pm,” the Chinese University’s respiratory medicine expert said.

Five more community-testing centres will be established this week, in addition to the nine currently operating. The number of testing specimen bottles distributed at 47 public outpatient clinics each day will be increased from 4,000 to 8,000, while more will be distributed at 121 post offices.

Two hotels, which together provide 800 rooms, will be used by the government solely for quarantining close contacts of patients, while three venues previously used as quarantine facilities will resume those services. The three sites – the Junior Police Call Permanent Activity Centre in Pat Heung, Lei Yue Mun Park and Holiday Village, and Sai Kung Outdoor Recreation Centre – will provide 600 to 700 more quarantine units.

Another 1,700 units built in the third phase of Penny’s Bay were also being prepared for use, Lam added.

Separately, Romania was set to become the 18th entry on the city’s list of countries deemed high risk for Covid-19, effective December 7. Arrivals from high-risk countries must have a negative Covid-19 test in hand before flying to Hong Kong.

Among the new infections confirmed on Monday, 68 were locally transmitted, while eight were imported. Some 50 preliminary-positive cases were likely to be confirmed on Tuesday.

Three more care homes for the elderly people or intellectually disabled people, as well as a secondary school, reported infections on Monday. Three public hospital staff, including a patient care assistant and a doctor from Queen Elizabeth Hospital, and a supporting staff member from Princess Margaret Hospital, also tested preliminary-positive, although their infections were believed to have been contracted from the community.

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Fong Shu Chuen Day Activity Centre and Hostel, a facility in Shau Kei Wan for intellectually disabled people, saw one more resident tested initially positive after two staff and another resident were infected.

Dr Lau Ka-hin, a chief manager from the Hospital Authority, said the authority’s infectious disease team would review whether there was room for improvement in care procedures, after a patient with fever who was later confirmed to have Covid-19 stayed in the emergency department of Alice Ho Miu Ling Nethersole Hospital in Tai Po for about five hours with other patients on Sunday.

Tung Wah Group of Hospitals Ho Yuk Chung Willow Lodge, meanwhile, an elderly care home in Tai Kok Tsui, recorded a confirmed case and another initially positive on Monday, both involved carers there.

A resident at Pak Lok Nursing Home in San Po Kong and a student from TWGHs S.C. Gaw Memorial College in Tsing Yi tested initially positive to the virus.

Health officials also identified Sky Cuisine in Sheung Wan as the latest restaurant where people who visited after mid-November would require testing, after some staff and patrons were found to be infected with the coronavirus.

While all kindergartens and primary and secondary schools will be closed until next year, the Education Bureau said in a letter to all schools on Monday that Primary Six and Form Six pupils could return to campuses for classes or exams. But face-to-face classes would only run on a half-day basis, and the number of pupils returning to schools must not exceed one-sixth of the original capacity.

The government was also expected to order all staff working in care homes for the elderly and disabled to take a coronavirus test before December 14, followed by a weekly test requirement.

Secretary for Labour and Welfare Dr Law Chi-kwong on Monday said all those employed in the care home industry, except those working in homes on outlying islands, would have to be tested at one of nine centres in the city, while a cash subsidy of around HK$200 would be offered monthly to each employee as the government planned to order them to get tested every week.

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