Hong Kong restaurant operators could barely cope with the government’s U-turn on social-distancing rules as workers across the city were offered access to indoor lunch amid a heatstroke warning on Thursday.
On Wednesday, blue-collar workers were found braving rain and heatwave, and taking shelter in parks, shopping malls and under bridges to have their lunch. But on Thursday, the government opened at least one community hall in each of the city’s 18 districts between 11am and 3pm for people to have lunch.
More churches voluntarily offered workers to dine in with their takeaway as the government had earlier imposed a ban on all-day dine-in services for a week from yesterday to contain a worsening third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.
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However, noticing the plight of workers on Wednesday, the government has decided to restore dine-in services at eateries between 5am and 5.59pm from Friday.
Industry body Institute of Dining Art chairman Ray Chui Man-wai described the government’s policies on eateries as a “failed surgery by an incompetent doctor”.
“The policy to ban dine-ins at restaurants is like the act of a sloppy doctor, who made incisions on a patient, but at the wrong place. The doctor ended up accidentally stabbing the heart of the patient, and killed the patient.”
He said forcing restaurants to stop serving customers throughout the day was a cause of major inconvenience for Hongkongers, and not the right policy to contain the coronavirus.
David Leung Chi-wai, chairman of Seafood Delight Group, stressed that restaurants were exhausted in struggling to stay afloat while coping with the government’s constantly changing rules.
Leung said his 12 Chinese restaurants had initially planned to stay closed when the seven-day ban on dine-ins was imposed, but now they would resume offering lunch sets on Friday.
There was an infection cluster among taxi drivers, but the government did not order taxis to stop operating
David Leung, chairman, Seafood Delight Group
To cut costs, the restaurants will take out their speciality seafood items from the menu.
“Two weeks ago, all restaurants had to cancel evening dine-ins. That was bad, but at least we had a few customers during the day,” Leung said.
“There was no point to stay open if we can’t seat any guests,” Leung said.
“It was unfair that restaurants had to stop operating dine-ins in the first place. There was an infection cluster among taxi drivers, but the government did not order taxis to stop operating.”
Simon Wong Ka-wo, president of the Hong Kong Federation of Restaurants and Related Trades, said the government’s reversal of the all-day ban on eating in restaurants was a small relief to the catering industry.
“Many groups have told the government that banning people from dining-in would cause a lot of problems,” Wong said, referring to a drop in restaurant revenues as well as leaving workers with no place to go for lunch under the sweltering summer heat.
Wong estimated that the restrictions imposed on the food and drink sector amid the third wave of coronavirus infections would mean restaurants could forgo as much as HK$7 billion in revenue in July based on the first quarter’s receipts, which plunged 31.3 per cent year on year to HK$21.67 billion.
Kwok Wang-hing, honorary member of the Eating Establishment Employees General Union, said allowing people to eat at restaurants again would at least save the jobs of some workers.
He said about 9,000 union members, mostly middle-aged restaurant waiters and chefs, were struggling to make ends meet as embattled restaurants had either put them on unpaid leave or sacked them.
The unemployment rate at the food and drink industry was among the highest across sectors, hitting 14.7 per cent in the April-to-June period, far higher than the 6.2 per cent jobless rate in the city. The union urged the government to offer a one-off HK$9,000 (US$1,161) subsidy to each of 240,000 catering sector workers, who were affected by the dine-in ban.
“Many people working in the food and drink industry will suffer a pay cut if the restaurant can’t operate as normal,” he said.
Not everyone works near a community centre, a lot of people still have to eat in the parks or streets because it’s closer to where they work
Chan, construction worker
On Thursday, an elderly man, who owns a shop near Henry G. Leong Yau Ma Tei Community Centre in Yau Ma Tei, and gave his name as Chung, termed the government’s arrangements as “rubbish”.
Though Chung said he found the community centre to be clean and peaceful compared to restaurants, he said the government did not consider how inconvenient the arrangement could have been for workers.
The Centre for Health Protection warned people of heatstroke and sunburn when taking part in outdoor activities under very hot weather. The mercury hovered around 35 degrees Celsius at lunchtime in the city.
At lunchtime on Thursday, there were less than 10 diners sitting apart in a room at the Yau Ma Tei community centre that can accommodate about 40 people.
A construction worker who only gave his surname as Li said having lunch indoors was better than sitting out in the heat or rain.
“If the government scraps the ban on dining in, at least we can sit in restaurants. But I hope they can still keep some community centres open for workers to have lunch, especially for those who want to bring their own food,” he said.
Another construction worker, Chan, in his 50s, said the dine-in ban was inconvenient for them as they could not find a decent place to have lunch.
“Not everyone works near a community centre, a lot of people still have to eat in the parks or on streets because it’s closer to where they work,” he said.
But at Causeway Bay Community Centre, only chairs were lined up 1½ metres apart while no tables were provided for diners.
Eaton Hotel in Mong Kok also opened its ballroom with tables and chairs for diners from 11am to 3pm and 5pm to 9pm.
Meanwhile, in the city’s financial district in Central, Hong Kong Baptist Church in Mid-Levels has set up an area within its compound with tables and chairs for the public to eat from 11am to 2.30pm.
“We want to create a better environment for people to enjoy their meal and rest. I think eating on the street is less hygienic,” said Jerome Lai, minister at Hong Kong Baptist Church.
“Normally the public doesn’t have enough space to rest. Now that dine-in services are banned, the space is even more limited.”
Lai said he did not feel their efforts countered the government’s attempt to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
“We’ve implemented very strict social-distancing measures, so it’s more hygienic. Tables are placed more than 1½ metres away from each other. Our staff will disinfect the tables and chairs after diners use them,” he said.
“We’re doing temperature checks as well, and are asking people to write down their information for contact tracing. People can also wash their hands here.”
The church handed out an extra mask and a bottle of water to diners.
One of the diners there was a hotel manager surnamed Leung in his fifties, who said he appreciated the church’s efforts.
“Yesterday when I went to eat in a park there were so many people around. I feel safer here [at the church] because they have adopted temperature check and disinfection measures,” he said.
“I think authorities had the right intention when they implemented the infection-control measures, but they didn’t think about how big its impact would be on the public.”
Another diner, Wong, a 60-year-old who works in telecoms, said he was not worried about the risk of contracting the virus at the church.
“The tables are spaced apart by more than two metres, there’s much more social-distancing here than outdoors,” he said.
“The government should have considered the needs of the public before they implemented the dine-in ban.”
People work hard just to make a living. We want to give them a roof and air-conditioning so they can eat in peace
Janet Wong, member of an NGO
On Wednesday, Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Wan Chai had set up an area with tables and chairs for the public to eat from 7am to 10pm.
Around 20 people also ate lunch at a community centre run by an NGO serving retirees and the elderly in Causeway Bay, which had been converted into a dining area.
“At first, some concerns were raised about the public-gathering limit and infection-control measures, but if we don’t offer people this space then they will be forced to eat on the street or in parks. Just because they’re outdoors doesn’t mean they can spread out and eat safely. This is an environment that I can control and keep hygienic, to help protect them from the risk of infection,” said Janet Wong, a member of the NGO.
She and her colleagues purchased foam boards, disinfecting wipes, and hand sanitisers to set up the tables on Thursday morning.
“People work hard just to make a living. We want to give them a roof and air-conditioning so they can eat in peace,” she said.
Despite the government reversing the dine-in ban, Wong said the NGO would keep the space open for workers to have lunch until August 7.
“The capacity of restaurants will remain capped at 50 per cent, so it may still be difficult for people to find a place to eat. We will welcome everyone to come here to relax and eat,” she said.
Hong Kong on Thursday registered a record 149 newly confirmed coronavirus cases, taking the total in the city to 3,151, with 25 deaths. The city registered three-figure increases in infections for the ninth day in a row.
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