A Thai Covid-19 patient linked to a potential cluster of cases at a Tsim Sha Tsui watering hole is now believed by authorities to be among a group of 10 women from the country who were arranged by an agent to work illegally as bar hostesses, the Post has learned.
The 10 women, said to have entered the city on tourist visas earlier this year, were among around 30 people inside the China Secret bar on Hart Avenue on September 23, the same night it was visited by a 22-year-old local student who also later tested positive for the disease.
In addition to the 10 Thai women and the Hong Kong student, those inside China Secret that night included six staff members, more than 10 patrons, and four other Thai women with Hong Kong identity cards who worked as “fighters” – or women paid to play drinking games and keep guests company.
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“Initial investigation showed the 10 suspected hostesses were brought to the bar via a local agent. We were told that they were paid [by the clients] between HK$400 [US$51] and HK$800 to drink with customers there,” one law enforcement source said.
“We don’t rule out the possibility that they also provided sexual services to their customers in a private deal with an extra charge.”
He said there were at least two other bars in Yau Tsim Mong district where Thai hostesses worked.
Another source with knowledge of the investigation said the infected Thai woman, 26, first entered the city on March 16 – nine days before the Hong Kong government imposed a ban on foreign arrivals.
The woman had permission to stay until September 30 – one day before she was confirmed as infected – and had been hospitalised since, the source said.
Speaking to police, the woman denied working as a bar girl, and maintained she went to China Secret just to hang out.
The law enforcement source noted three other Thai women were later located and also tested positive this week after authorities checked the contacts of the agent and the 26-year-old infected woman. One, aged 27, held a Hong Kong identity card, and said she was a housewife. The two others, aged 35 and 38, entered the city on tourist visas.
But the source said it was not known whether the three had also patronised China Secret.
The Centre for Health Protection, meanwhile, said the housewife had previously provided false information to authorities, telling them her friend, the 35-year-old infected Thai woman, had already returned to her home country, when she was still in the city.
Dr Joseph Tsang Kay-yan, an infectious disease expert, said the presence of illegal workers in the city in general could make it more complicated to trace contacts, as they might tend to hide facts from health authorities.
“If you want to solve the problem of people not telling the truth, we must first not allow these people to [be here] through law enforcement,” he said.
Tsang added that the other people who were in the bar, including customers, hostesses and staff, had been exposed to risks as they might have been socialising with close contacts, possibly without wearing a mask.
As to whether the infections in the bar in question would spark another outbreak, he said that remained to be seen.
But Professor David Hui Shu-cheong of Chinese University, also a government health adviser, believed the risk of a local outbreak stemming from the latest bar infections was smaller than the last time such a cluster emerged during the city’s second wave.
At that time, more than 100 patients were ultimately swept up in the “bar and band cluster” that shocked the city in March and April. The emergence of the cluster prompted authorities to close bars and ban live performances in drinking establishments.
“Although this round might have involved something like illegal bars or hostesses, at least we didn‘t have live performances that usually engaged a large group of people. So relatively, the risk of triggering a big outbreak is low,” he said. “Now, these are just more like isolated events.”
Travellers from Thailand can visit Hong Kong without a visa for a period not exceeding 30 days, though they can apply to the Immigration Department to extend their stay.
Thailand, meanwhile, banned all international flights into the country from April 3 until June 30. Cathay Pacific finally restarted flights to Bangkok on July 1, though suppressed travel demand and stringent requirements for travel have made flying difficult.
On Monday, the Centre for Health Protection said the Thai consulate had told them it would distribute coronavirus test sample bottles to the estimated 100 Thai nationals who visited there each day.
A consulate worker said the scheme was voluntary and that they would only give the bottles to Thais upon request, but during a visit on Tuesday morning, most of those visiting the consulate did not specifically ask for the bottles. The staff member declined to reveal how many bottles had already been given out.
Meanwhile, some Thais in the city, like Hong Kong-born dual national Hoi Ting, 23, expressed concerns about infections creeping into the community, noting that many Thais tended to visit the same places.
“Thais always go shopping in Kowloon City,” the Shek Kip Mei housewife said, pointing to the neighbouring district famed for its Thai restaurants and shops.
Additional reporting by Christy Leung and Danny Lee
More from South China Morning Post:
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