Hong Kong limits gatherings to 4 after record virus surge

Iain Marlow Bloomberg

Hong Kong announced plans to ban gatherings of more than four people and close cinemas, gyms and arcades, after the Asian financial center recorded its largest one-day surge in coronavirus cases.

The city is asking restaurants to reduce their capacity by half, Chief Executive Carrie Lam told reporters Friday. The measures at eateries also require them to keep tables at least 1.5 meters (5 feet) apart, limit seatings to four people per table and enact temperature checks for those entering. They will take effect at midnight on Sunday.

The gyms, movie theaters and arcades will be closed from 6 p.m. Saturday.

Weddings and funerals will be exempted from the limits on gatherings for now. Lam also reversed course on a controversial and confusing move to ban alcohol sales, saying she had only “suggested” such a move.

People wear their face masks on the streets of Hong Kong Thursday, March 26, 2020.

Lam said she understood that the measures would mean another blow to local businesses. “But for the sake of public health and the fight against the virus, we must take this step,” she said.

She added that Hong Kong’s government would discuss further virus relief measures with businesses and ask employers to not cut staff.

Cases surge

In the last two weeks, hundreds have rushed back to Hong Kong in part to avoid a March 19 government deadline that subjected all international arrivals to a 14-day self-quarantine. Hong Kong reported 65 new coronavirus cases Friday and has seen its tally of infections more than triple in two weeks to 518.

The spike has alarmed the local government and residents after the spread of Covid-19 had largely been contained over the last two months, even as the pathogen spread rapidly in Europe and the U.S. Hong Kong, like other regional governments from Japan to New Zealand, has rushed to contain a fresh wave of cases from residents returning from abroad.

A mandatory quarantine on arrivals from particularly hard-hit countries was expanded to all new arrivals, and the city recently banned tourists completely for two weeks. Hong Kong was one of the first governments to close schools, museums and government buildings as the virus spread.

Despite the surge in cases, a move to ban the sale of alcohol proved controversial in a city known for its bars and nightlife. The city’s hospitality industry was already struggling after more than six months of violent anti-China protests last year.

Although several confirmed local coronavirus transmissions occurred in the Lan Kwai Fong bar district and at a wedding party, Lam’s move to ban alcohol wasn’t accompanied by clear guidelines.

Her desire to ban alcohol but keep restaurants open struck some as strange, particularly when she justified her moved by saying “sometimes people get a bit intimate when they’re drunk, and this will raise the risk of cross infection.”