Omicron breaking through HK’s ‘zero Covid’ defenses

HONG KONG – Tough new containment measures to stop the spread of the Omicron variant have Hong Kong businesses up in arms just weeks ahead of the normally festive and lucrative Chinese New Year season. Restaurant operators and the owners of 15 types of venues including bars and beauty parlors have all complained about the Hong Kong government’s latest decision to tighten social distancing rules for at least 14 days to contain a rash of Omicron cases. Restaurant owners said that after the government announced a ban on dine-in services after 6pm, many customers had canceled their bookings for Chinese New Year, a traditional high season. They said they faced losing as much as 40% of their revenue if the rules were extended to 28 days. The operators of beauty and massage parlors, which will be closed for two weeks, said it was unfair that they were targeted first whenever there were virus outbreaks. Health officials said the government hopes to break transmission chains quickly and control the situation within two weeks so businesses can resume normal operations during the Chinese New Year holiday. That may or may not happen. Reports indicate the city’s health care system is already near its capacity to handle Covid-19 cases. Hong Kong hospitals were treating more than 340 Covid cases — mostly returning travelers — mainly in North Lantau Hospital near the airport, according to Tony Ko, chief executive of the Hospital Authority which manages public hospitals told reporters. Ko said at a media briefing on Wednesday that the hospital would run out of space in four or five days if it continued to receive 40 to 50 new cases a day. To cope with the emergency, the government has opened facilities at the AsiaWorld-Expo convention center which has 500 beds, according to news reports. A woman undergoes a Covid-19 test at a mobile specimen collection station in Hong Kong on May 3, 2021. Hong Kong officials are working on new measures to prevent the spread of the new variant. Photo: AFP / Miguel Candela / Anadolu Agency Concerns hinge on Hong Kong’s comparatively low vaccination rate for developed economies, particularly among the elderly. Many Hong Kong citizens have opted for China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd vaccine, which initial research studies show is likely less effective against Omicron.  On December 27, 2021, a 44-year-old male Cathay Pacific flight attendant, who was exempted from the 21-day quarantine requirement in Hong Kong, visited the Moon Palace restaurant at the Festival Walk mall in Kowloon Tong with his father after returning from the United States. He and his father later tested positive for the Omicron strain. A construction worker who had been sitting about 10 meters from the infected flight attendant was also found to be infected. A total of nine people in the cluster have been identified so far. Separately, a 28-year-old female Cathay Pacific flight attendant arrived in Hong Kong from the United States on December 27 and tested positive last Saturday. When she was at home, she passed the Omicron virus to her mother, who then infected two of her friends. One of them may have infected her 43-year-old Indonesian domestic worker, who infected a friend at her church. The flight attendant’s unvaccinated mother, dubbed a superspreader because of a high viral load, danced with more than 20 people at Victoria Park every morning during her incubation period. She infected a 42-year-old unvaccinated surveyor, who lives in Tuen Mun. The man walked through Victoria Park to work every morning, but he may have visited a restaurant in Tin Hau around the same time as the flight attendant’s mother, said Edwin Tsui, the head of the Center for Health Protection. On Thursday, the Center for Health Protection said a customer who visited a restaurant at Windsor House in Causeway Bay last Thursday could have been infected by the flight attendant’s mother. Gabriel Matthew Leung, the current dean of the Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine at the University of Hong Kong, said there could be five to 10 virus transmission chains in the community, meaning it was high time to tighten the social distancing rules in Hong Kong. Ivan Hung, chief of the Infectious Disease Division at the University of Hong Kong, said as the “fifth epidemic wave” had started in Hong Kong, the government had to find all the close contacts of those infected and cut off virus transmission chains as early as possible. On Wednesday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said the government would re-impose strict anti-epidemic measures in Hong Kong to try to ward off a large-scale Omicron outbreak. She said flights from eight countries including the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia, would be suspended for 14 days starting Saturday. The restaurant sector faces missing out on HK$8 billion ($1.23 billion) worth of business if the government extends restrictions through the crucial Lunar New Year

Omicron breaking through HK’s ‘zero Covid’ defenses

HONG KONG – Tough new containment measures to stop the spread of the Omicron variant have Hong Kong businesses up in arms just weeks ahead of the normally festive and lucrative Chinese New Year season.

Restaurant operators and the owners of 15 types of venues including bars and beauty parlors have all complained about the Hong Kong government’s latest decision to tighten social distancing rules for at least 14 days to contain a rash of Omicron cases.

Restaurant owners said that after the government announced a ban on dine-in services after 6pm, many customers had canceled their bookings for Chinese New Year, a traditional high season. They said they faced losing as much as 40% of their revenue if the rules were extended to 28 days.

The operators of beauty and massage parlors, which will be closed for two weeks, said it was unfair that they were targeted first whenever there were virus outbreaks. Health officials said the government hopes to break transmission chains quickly and control the situation within two weeks so businesses can resume normal operations during the Chinese New Year holiday.

That may or may not happen.

Reports indicate the city’s health care system is already near its capacity to handle Covid-19 cases. Hong Kong hospitals were treating more than 340 Covid cases — mostly returning travelers — mainly in North Lantau Hospital near the airport, according to Tony Ko, chief executive of the Hospital Authority which manages public hospitals told reporters.

Ko said at a media briefing on Wednesday that the hospital would run out of space in four or five days if it continued to receive 40 to 50 new cases a day. To cope with the emergency, the government has opened facilities at the AsiaWorld-Expo convention center which has 500 beds, according to news reports.

A woman undergoes a Covid-19 test at a mobile specimen collection station in Hong Kong on May 3, 2021. Hong Kong officials are working on new measures to prevent the spread of the new variant. Photo: AFP / Miguel Candela / Anadolu Agency

Concerns hinge on Hong Kong’s comparatively low vaccination rate for developed economies, particularly among the elderly. Many Hong Kong citizens have opted for China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd vaccine, which initial research studies show is likely less effective against Omicron. 

On December 27, 2021, a 44-year-old male Cathay Pacific flight attendant, who was exempted from the 21-day quarantine requirement in Hong Kong, visited the Moon Palace restaurant at the Festival Walk mall in Kowloon Tong with his father after returning from the United States. He and his father later tested positive for the Omicron strain.

A construction worker who had been sitting about 10 meters from the infected flight attendant was also found to be infected. A total of nine people in the cluster have been identified so far.

Separately, a 28-year-old female Cathay Pacific flight attendant arrived in Hong Kong from the United States on December 27 and tested positive last Saturday. When she was at home, she passed the Omicron virus to her mother, who then infected two of her friends.

One of them may have infected her 43-year-old Indonesian domestic worker, who infected a friend at her church.

The flight attendant’s unvaccinated mother, dubbed a superspreader because of a high viral load, danced with more than 20 people at Victoria Park every morning during her incubation period. She infected a 42-year-old unvaccinated surveyor, who lives in Tuen Mun.

The man walked through Victoria Park to work every morning, but he may have visited a restaurant in Tin Hau around the same time as the flight attendant’s mother, said Edwin Tsui, the head of the Center for Health Protection.

On Thursday, the Center for Health Protection said a customer who visited a restaurant at Windsor House in Causeway Bay last Thursday could have been infected by the flight attendant’s mother.

Gabriel Matthew Leung, the current dean of the Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine at the University of Hong Kong, said there could be five to 10 virus transmission chains in the community, meaning it was high time to tighten the social distancing rules in Hong Kong.

Ivan Hung, chief of the Infectious Disease Division at the University of Hong Kong, said as the “fifth epidemic wave” had started in Hong Kong, the government had to find all the close contacts of those infected and cut off virus transmission chains as early as possible.

On Wednesday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said the government would re-impose strict anti-epidemic measures in Hong Kong to try to ward off a large-scale Omicron outbreak.

She said flights from eight countries including the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia, would be suspended for 14 days starting Saturday.

The restaurant sector faces missing out on HK$8 billion ($1.23 billion) worth of business if the government extends restrictions through the crucial Lunar New Year period, said Simon Wong, president of the Hong Kong Federation of Restaurants & Related Trades.

The sector’s revenue could fall by 40% in the first two months of the year due to the tightening measures, Wong said.

“I hope that the government would roll out some kind of relief program to save the industry, as well as to help the workers from being laid off,” Wong said. “This is very important because many workers during this time need money for the Chinese New Year.

“We are seeing that all the bookings for the Lunar New Year period might be canceled. We have already ordered all the food for the celebration, and also have already employed a lot of people to serve during this period,” he added.

Nelson Ip, chairman of the Federation of Beauty Industry, said there was anger and shock in the sector over a government decision to shut down beauty parlors for two weeks.

“We feel that every time it’s us and 10 or so other sectors that have to make sacrifices,” he said. “Over the past one to two years, the chief executive and some former officials have repeatedly praised the beauty industry for its work fighting the virus.

“We’ve maintained zero infections so far, so we never expected that we would have to close again.”

Ip said before Wednesday’s announcement, the government never consulted the sector, which would likely lose more than HK$3 billion if the curbs were extended through the Chinese New Year. He called on the government to provide short-term subsidies for beauty parlors to pay their staff.

The new more contagious variant is causing record daily case levels in the West. On Wednesday, the UK recorded a total of 193,814 Covid-19 cases, while the US reported 704,369 cases in a single day. France saw 322,894 cases, while Germany had 67,337 cases.

Food and Environmental Hygiene Department officers and police leave after inspecting the license of a restaurant and bar after it reopened, in Lan Kwai Fong, a popular drinking area in Hong Kong on April 29, 2021, Photo: AFP / Anthony Wallace

On Thursday, Hong Kong reported 33 confirmed infections, including 28 imported cases, and 30 preliminary cases. The number seems insignificant compared with those in Western countries, but the rise of local Omicron cases has disrupted Hong Kong’s “zero Covid” strategy.

“Our assessment is that there could be invisible chains of transmission in the community because the patients had visited a lot of places and restaurants during their incubation period,” Sophia Chan, the Secretary for Food and Health, said Thursday.

“We will continue the contact tracing work. We also appeal to people who have been to these places to get tested for Covid-19 as soon as possible.”

Follow Jeff Pao on Twitter at @jeffpao3