Pressure Grows on Hong Kong to Re-Open Economy as Cases Drop

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Hong Kong is facing pressure to re-open restaurants and relax social-distancing measures as its outbreak wanes, but a bold easing approach carries both public health and political risks.


With new local cases showing a sustained decline — hitting 18 on Friday — businesses are pressing for restrictions on restaurants to be lifted quickly to boost the economy and help residents who rely on eating out due to small apartment sizes.
“Maybe by next week cases will drop to around ten or single digits -– and then a lot of experts are taking that as a yardstick, where some social distancing measures can be relaxed,” said Lam Ching Choi, a member of Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s advisory Executive Council and medical doctor. He said that government experts are devising guidelines for restaurants to safely re-open.


“We’ll open either next week or the week after next, so we must get these measures ready,” he said. “Restaurants are quite essential for Hong Kong people because many don’t even cook at home.”

Customers wearing protective masks wait outside a restaurant to collect their takeout meals during lunch hour in Central district in Hong Kong on July 29.
Photographer: Roy Liu/Bloomberg


Chief Executive Carrie Lam confirmed at a briefing on Friday afternoon that dine-in service would be restored first as the city eases restrictions, followed by other sectors including cinemas and beauty parlours. She asked residents to be patient and give the government about a week to monitor if the virus downtrend is persisting before allowing relaxation in rules.


She refuted earlier local media reports suggesting that any easing might not take place until the middle of next month — after a planned mass testing blitz and the previous date of a legislative election that was delayed for a year.

The dilemma on when and how to open underscores the challenges facing Hong Kong as both the pandemic and the struggle between pro-democracy groups and China delivers a double whammy to the economy. The U.S. has eliminated special trade privileges for Hong Kong and sanctioned some top leaders, while foreign businesses are closely watching to see if a China-imposed national security law will impede essential freedoms not available on the mainland.


A fast-paced re-opening would be bolder than Hong Kong’s previous practice and could allow the virus to start spreading again: During its previous wave in April, the city didn’t ease restrictions until there were 18 days of zero local virus cases. But the economic situation is also direr now, with gross domestic product shrinking 9% in the second quarter. The unemployment rate has more than doubled to 6.1% in the past 12 months.


Long Wait to Zero


“We are not likely to see cases fall back to zero for quite a while as there are so many asymptomatic cases in circulation — both here in Hong Kong and overseas,” said Nicholas Thomas, associate professor in health security at the City University of Hong Kong. The mass testing exercise will also pick up more silent infections, he said.


In early July, after a long stretch of virus-free life, Hong Kong’s worst outbreak yet emerged, growing to account for more than two-thirds of its over 4,600 cases. Officials shut bars, gyms and cinemas, while banning dining-in at restaurants between the hours of 6 p.m. and 5 a.m. Masks are mandatory both indoors and outdoors in public, while public gatherings of more than two people are forbidden.

Empty seats and table stand outside a closed bar on Knutsford Terrace in Hong Kong on July 24.
Photographer: Chan Long Hei/Bloomberg

The government delayed the Legislative Council election scheduled for Sept. 6, drawing criticism from both the opposition, which had hoped to make unprecedented gains and U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, who said there was “no valid reason for such a lengthy delay.” Relaxing social-distancing measures before Sept. 6 could fuel the impression that the postponement was a political move to further disadvantage pro-democracy groups, in line with the aggressive use of the new law to detain activists.


In the near-term, officials are likely to ease restrictions only on restaurants while bars, which have been closed for over a month, are likely to stay shuttered, said advisor Lam. He added that the current wave has more local cases than the previous one, which was predominantly imported cases.


Risky Bars


“These bars are pretty risky, in the sense that once they spread, they can spread very quickly, mainly because of the behaviour — masks off, and people linger there for quite a bit of time, and it’s more crowded, and the customers like to go from bar to bar,” he said. “All that makes these bars a risky gathering place, so that makes it a bit difficult to open up the bars.”


Though government restrictions remain in place, social activity is already rising as daily cases drop. Demand for public transportation is at about 42% below pre-coronavirus levels this week, up to ten percentage points from two weeks ago, according to Moovit App Global Ltd. data. Shopping activity has risen by more than 6 percentage points to 30% lower than pre-virus levels in August, according to the ShopperTrak Traffic Index.

Pedestrians wearing protective masks walk past the 1881 Heritage shopping mall in the Tsim Sha Tsui district of Hong Kong, China on Sunday, July 26.
Photographer: Roy Liu/Bloomberg

With Hong Kong having boosted its testing and health-care facilities due to the latest outbreak, the city may be able to loosen restrictions more quickly now, said respiratory specialist Leung Chi-chiu, former chairman of the Medical Association’s advisory committee on communicable diseases.


“Faster testing and tracing may help to complement our near-100% mask-wearing to allow relaxation of social distancing earlier,” said Leung. Some measures could be relaxed if restaurants, bars and gyms introduce better hygienic measures as well as voluntary testing for workers, he said.

因應新冠肺炎疫情轉趨緩和,香港需重新開放餐廳及放寬社交距離限制等措施,以緩解經濟壓力。但相關行爲或將帶來公共衞生和政治風險。

香港周五新增新冠肺炎本地確診個案18宗,呈持續下降趨勢。餐飲業界促政府接觸限制措施,提振經濟。同時減少因禁堂食,居民「遍地開餐」的情況。

行政會議成員林正財說:「下星期確診個案大概會降至10宗及以下,到時有關專家將以此為標注,放寬社交距離限制措施。」

他表示,政府專家正為重新開放餐廳堂食制定守則。

林正才又指:「我們下周或下下周可能會放寬防疫限制措施,所以現在必須還是做做準備。餐廳對香港來來説很重要,因爲很多人不在家煮飯。」

行政長官林鄭月娥周五下午在記者會上表示,將首先恢復餐飲業,跟著是電影、美容等其他行業。她希望市民可以多些耐心,多給政府一個星期時間,監察疫情是否持續緩和。本港將于9月1日開始進行全民自願核酸檢測,而原定於9月舉行的立法會選舉亦將延遲一年。

香港正面臨經濟復甦及社會動蕩的雙重壓力。美國已取消香港特殊待遇地位,並對相關官員實施制裁。此外,外國企業亦正密切留意,港區國安法是否會破壞相對自由的社會環境,令香港與中國大陸完全相同。

重啓社會經濟或令疫情再次爆發,疫情在四月中曾連續18日無本地感染個案,當局一度放寬限制措施。如今,本港經濟面對更大壓力,第二季GDP收縮百分之9。失業率在過去十二個月上升一倍,達百分之6.1。

香港理工大學副教授唐思寧說:「確診個案短期内很難降至零,因爲仍有一些無症狀感染者,不論是香港還是外國。全民檢測將發現更多無症狀感染者。」

香港曾於七月初一度放寬防疫措施,其後疫情捲土重來,感染者超過總病例4600多人的三分之二以上。當局即刻采取措施,關閉酒吧、體育館、戲院等處所,同時食肆「朝五晚六」禁止堂食。室内、外須戴口罩,並實施兩人以上限聚令。

港府亦決定延遲即將在9月6日進行的立法會選舉一年,被民主派質疑,延遲選舉為處於劣勢的建制派贏取更多準備時間,美國國務卿蓬佩奧質疑,延遲選舉時間過長。此外,隨著相關限制措施的放寬,社會運動再次上升,輿論憂慮當局利用《港區國安法》打擊民主派,以削弱明年在選舉中的力量。

林正財指,政府近期僅打算開放餐廳,已關閉超過一個月的酒吧等仍維持現狀。他又表示,這輪疫情感染人數超上輪,之前主要是輸入個案。

雖然政府未全面放寬限制措施,但隨著單日新增感染人數下降,社會活動正逐步恢復。據悉,本周市民對公共交通使用量與前兩個星期相比上升百分之10,但仍比疫情前低42%,8月消費指數上升百分之6,比疫情前低百分之30。

有專科醫師指,隨著政府增加病毒檢測量與完善醫療設施,放寬限制措施的進程或將加快。在幾乎全民戴口罩的環境下,加快檢測速度及追蹤感染源頭,同時餐廳、酒吧、健身房等場所加强檢疫措施,亦可促使政府提早放寬限制。

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