The restrictive measures to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus in Hong Kong have come at a heavy economic cost, with certain sectors assuming a disproportionate share of the toll.
The food and beverage (F&B) industry has been hardest hit because of the ongoing restrictions on the number of diners per table, as well as the ban on dine-in services after 6pm. These measures have also had serious knock-on effects on businesses along the F&B supply chain, with many struggling to stay afloat. This has been exacerbated by insufficient relief on rents, with many landlords holding steadfast to existing tenancy agreements based on the presumption that the restrictions are temporary.
We share the Government’s concern over the need to protect public health but believe a more balanced approach could be adopted. The current response of shutting down entire industries due to isolated cases is not only harmful and excessive but could have unintended consequences that ripple across other parts of the economy.
It bears noting that there have been no major outbreaks during the past two waves despite catering premises remaining opened during the day. This is due to the industry’s implementation of preventive measures to contain the coronavirus. This, in itself, should provide compelling reason for the Government to ease current restrictions on operating hours.
Ultimately, a coherent and systematic approach should be put in place so that operators are able to understand their obligations and the implications of non-compliance. The introduction of such a set of standards should also help to restore public confidence.
With that in mind, we suggest that the Government give serious consideration to the following:
Establish a confidence-building system by requiring a health certificate as a precondition for restaurants to stay open until 10pm and bars/clubs/karaokes to operate from 9pm to 2am. Such a system could be based on the HKQAA’s Anti-Epidemic Hygiene Measures Certification Scheme. In addition, we suggest that venues with more than three confirmed cases be subject to a 14-day closure and sanitation requirements.
Mandate the use of the LeaveHomeSafe app as a condition for remaining open after 6pm. Consideration could be also given to expanding the app’s capabilities to verify that guests seated together are from the same household and therefore of a lower risk profile.
Introduce a requirement that alcoholic beverages must be served at tables and can only be consumed when seated. This would address concerns over crowding around bars.
With the current restrictions, many businesses may not be able to survive beyond the Lunar New Year. Further government aid is therefore necessary to stave off the spate of business closures and job losses that would otherwise occur.
Consideration could be given to a modified Employment Support Scheme (ESS) for affected industries whereby the Government subsidizes salaries for employees put on no-pay leave by up to $9,000 or 50% of pay, whichever is lower. This would help protect jobs and allow employers to maintain existing payrolls without requiring a sizeable financial commitment from the Government.