Are Hong Kong’s restaurants ready for eased Covid-19 curbs? 100,000 staff to be tested, operators see app rule as recipe for conflict

Cannix Yau
·9-min read

Hong Kong’s beleaguered catering sector is gearing up for the resumption of evening dine-in services on Thursday with more than 100,000 workers lining up for mandatory Covid-19 tests.

Some business owners are grappling with how they can record details of diners who refuse to use the government’s contact-tracing app.

More than 16,000 restaurants in the city are busy preparing for the long-awaited relaxation of tough social-distancing rules as authorities on Tuesday announced the easing of the cap on customers per table from two to four, with dine-in services to be allowed until 10pm. The changes will kick in on Thursday.

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Strict measures in place since last December have limited the number of patrons per table and banned dine-in services after 6pm.

But the relaxations come with two conditions for venue operators – employees will need to be tested for the coronavirus every 14 days, and customers either have to scan the government’s “Leave Home Safe” Covid-19 exposure app or register their contact details.

Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee said on Tuesday that there would be no compromise on the conditions, which were part of public health measures.

Hong Kong restaurateurs predict a bitter winter for city’s eateries

Failure to comply with the rules could lead to restaurants being banned from providing evening dine-in services for up to 14 days, on top of existing penalties.

The app – which has been downloaded 840,000 times and covers some 70,000 public and private venues across the city – has so far been used by patrons voluntarily. When users enter a venue, they have to scan a specific QR code displayed on the premises. When exiting the place, they have to press “leave” on the app.

Officials said the check-in data would be encrypted and remain only on users’ mobile phones for 31 days, and would not be stored in any other systems. The app will only notify users if a person confirmed with Covid-19 had recently visited the same premises.

However, some restaurant bosses have raised concerns over how they would enforce the new rule requiring customers to use the app without offending them.

If this app fails to win public acceptance, it won’t achieve its intended purpose of curbing the spread of the coronavirus

Simon Wong, restaurateur

Restaurateur Simon Wong Kit-lung, who runs 39 eateries under the LH Group, said all his 700 employees had undergone Covid-19 tests. He also said they had prepared boxes at the entrances of outlets, for patrons who refused the app to deposit paper notes containing their names and contact details.

“Our staff won’t check our customers’ details or ID cards for privacy reasons. We will keep their contact details for 31 days just in case health officials ask for the data. After this period, we’ll destroy the records,” he said.

Wong said it would not be easy to ensure that all customers willingly provided accurate personal details, adding that those who used the app could also delete it quickly each time.

“The core issue is that most Hongkongers have resisted using the app. If the government forces them to use the app before they are allowed to dine in, this will accelerate the demise of the catering industry,” he warned.

Wong said staff could instead ask diners to either scan the app’s QR code or leave their contact details for the record.

“Our staff won’t ask customers if they have provided correct information. It is beyond our responsibility. We’ll try to avoid causing any conflict with our customers,” he said.

He advised the government to enhance promotion of the app to strengthen public confidence over its usage. “If this app fails to win public acceptance, it won’t achieve its intended purpose of curbing the spread of the coronavirus. It isn’t the job of restaurants to persuade customers to trust the app,” he said.

A worker from London Restaurant busy making copies of the QR code to be displayed on every table. Photo: Nadia Lam
A worker from London Restaurant busy making copies of the QR code to be displayed on every table. Photo: Nadia Lam

Reeling from multiple rounds of social-distancing measures, Hong Kong restaurant earnings posted a record decline last year, dropping 29.4 per cent to HK$79.4 billion (US$10.24 billion) from HK$112.5 billion in 2019.

But Wong said they had no plans to lay off staff. “Instead, we have given a pay rise of at least 1.3 per cent to our staff, along with a bonus. We hope to express thanks to our staff during this difficult period and boost their morale.”

Simon Wong Ka-wo, president of the Hong Kong Federation of Restaurants and Related Trades, said about 100,000 out of more than 200,000 employees in the catering industry had already been tested for Covid-19.

He did not rule out the possibility that frontline staff might get into altercations with diners over the use of the app or the recording of contact details, as refusal to follow the guidelines would mean denial of entry.

“Both customers and restaurant staff are happy about the resumption of evening dine-in services, so I believe customers will be cooperative about using the app or leaving their details,” he said.

He stressed that restaurant staff would not check the personal details of customers so people did not need to worry about privacy risks.

Wong hoped that the resumption of evening dine-in services would allow eateries to restore about 70 per cent of their business as they would also scramble to deliver New Year special sets to attract diners.

Many restaurants were fully booked on Thursday, he said, adding that forward bookings for the rest of this month were building up as companies wanted to celebrate spring dinners.

“Earlier I estimated there were about 3,000 restaurants on the brink of closing down. Now I think the easing of the rules could save about 2,000 outlets,” he said.

So far, we haven’t come across any customers who use the app voluntarily

Vivienne Mak, owner, Fast Gourmet

Vivienne Mak, owner of Fast Gourmet in Central, said all her 20 staff members had made bookings for Covid-19 tests. She asked the authorities to distribute bottles for staff to return samples for testing instead of requiring them to spend time queuing up.

She also called for more guidelines on how to enforce the new rule on the app or record customers’ details for contact tracing. “As a restaurant operator working in the hospitality industry, we take a very passive role … So far, we haven’t come across any customers who use the app voluntarily,” she said.

“We leave the choices to our customers. But we hope the government will issue more guidelines as to how we can keep a record of customers’ details without causing any conflict.”

Mak said they tended to use discounted meals to attract diners and avoided offering buffets due to concerns about Covid-19 risks.

Lunch hour at a restaurant in Mong Kok. Photo: Nora Tam
Lunch hour at a restaurant in Mong Kok. Photo: Nora Tam

Wong Chi-ming, director of Hung’s Cuisine in Causeway Bay, said he had prepared notes for customers, asking them to fill out forms with their contact details if they refused to use the app.

“I am also concerned that our diners will resist the new rule. But we need to survive, so we will assist the government with the new rule,” he said.

He said the rule posed a problem for elderly people such as his 80-year-old mother who is illiterate and not a mobile phone user.

“My mother likes to go out for breakfasts. To facilitate her, I’ve printed out a pile of cards with her name and contact details so she just needs to hand in her card every time she dines out,” he said.

However, he believed the new move would not have an impact on his business as his customers were mostly regulars. “We don’t care about what diners will fill out on the paper notes … In fact, a lot of customers have made bookings with us for an evening meal on Thursday, as many have been eager to dine out.”

If customers want to lie or trick the restaurants, there’s not much we can do

Andy Lee, director, Hungry Korean restaurant

Andy Lee, director of Hungry Korean restaurant in Causeway Bay, said the app rule might raise more questions than solutions in the fight against the pandemic.

“We cannot fight with customers who pretend to scan but do not actually do it. We cannot force customers to show us their phone screen,” he said.

For those who leave their details, Lee said there was no way to verify if they provided accurate information.

“If customers want to lie or trick the restaurants, there’s not much we can do. I am afraid rules made in such a rush are not well thought out,” he said.

The Post visited 20 restaurants across Mong Kok, Tsim Sha Tsui and Causeway Bay on Tuesday, and 95 per cent of them were displaying specific QR codes on the premises, except for one which claimed it had not yet received the code from the government.

Restaurant earnings dive nearly 30 per cent in 2020 as pandemic batters business

Restaurants also have papers and notebooks prepared to jot down customers’ personal information.

To make it more convenient for diners, two restaurants have also printed out copies of the QR code and displayed these at every table. Yet, they also expressed concerns over forcing customers to complete the procedures.

“The responsibility [of ensuring that patrons follow the rule] is now thrown to the persons in charge of the restaurants. However, we are not law enforcement officers. We cannot force our customers to do so, as it requires their self-discipline. We can only urge them,” said Chan Kwok-ying, manager of London Restaurant.

Some have also expressed privacy concerns over the app. “We do not encourage our customers to use the app, as we do not know how the data would be used,” Lung Mun Cafe owner Cheung Chun-kit said.

The restaurant has chosen to display its QR code on the floor as Cheung felt the new rule was forcefully imposed on them. Some of his customers also told him they would choose not to visit the restaurant if using the app became mandatory.

All restaurants the Post visited said they would complete staff testing before the deadline. Some said even before the new regulation was announced, their staff had voluntarily gone for coronavirus testing regularly to ensure the safety of colleagues and customers.

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