Dine-in ban reversal after public outcry

Top News | Sophie Hui 31 Jul 2020

Officials bowed to public pressure to allow eateries to provide dine-in food during daytime just two days after a 24-7 ban was imposed.

"After extending the dine-in ban to all hours, we saw some people were forced to eat in places where they would not usually eat," undersecretary for food and health Chui Tak-yi said yesterday.

"We hope the modification will provide comfortable indoor places to eat."

The first day of the ban, Wednesday, had seen people eating along streets, on staircases and even in public toilets during rain.

On whether the U-turn would be followed by an apology for a messy ban, Chui said: "The proper way to respond is to make adjustments as soon as possible."

He echoed a government statement issued earlier yesterday that officials understood the inconvenience and difficulties for workers caused by the ban that kicked in from midnight to try to arrest Hong Kong's surge of Covid-19 cases.

So it was decided eateries could resume providing dine-in food from 5am to 5.59pm from today.

But tables are restricted to two people and must be at least 1.5 meters apart or partitioned. Eateries also need to limit customers to half of their capacities.

Restaurants are urged to take further measures to minimize transmission risk such as arranging one-way seating to avoid face-to-face contact.

The U-turn came after overwhelming calls for officials to retract the ban, including from the pro-establishment Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, which has two members - Ip Kwok-him and Horace Cheung Kwok-kwan - on the Executive Council.

And medical experts agreed to the move to resume daytime dine-in services.

University of Hong Kong infectious disease expert Ho Pak-leung, who had backed the ban, apologized as the results were "disastrous."

He said the intention had been good, but there were no support measures when many people needed to go to work and to eat.

The transmission risk was also greater for people who eat in unhygienic places like toilets rather than restaurants, Ho added. He said there were other loopholes and risks, such as diagnosed patients needing to stay home as they wait for admission to hospital while close contacts must go to work.

Chinese University respiratory disease expert David Hui Shu-cheong, who is a government adviser, said he felt for people who had to eat on the streets.

Although outdoor areas are naturally ventilated, he said, there is risk of spreading other diseases as the weather is hot and people lack places to wash hands.

He said opening community centers for workers contradicted the idea of banning dine-in meals at restaurants.

Cleaners also pointed to hygiene issues such as more rubbish mounting in parks and on the streets.

A small number of people ate their lunches in community facilities after officials that there would be 19 venues under the Home Affairs Department to serve as eating places.

But outside Kai Tak Community Hall in Kowloon City workers sat on nearby stairs to eat. "I'm very tired and don't want to walk to the community hall in the sun," said construction worker Lai. "So I just found a place to have my meal."

Only two people were allowed at each table in the community halls, partitions to separate diners were put up and hand sanitizers were provided.

Meanwhile, concerned people launched a Facebook page to collect information about what spaces and places were available for dine-out meals.

Help for people seeking somewhere to eat carry-out food was also provided by the MTR, retail chain Pricerite, Kowloon Motor Bus and several churches.

The MTR set aside a covered area for Sha Tin to Central Rail Link construction workers to eat their lunches, Pricerite provided 1,000 chairs for those in need, KMB allowed workers to eat lunches in air-conditioned parked buses, and several churches also offered spaces for diners.

sophie.hui@singtaonewscorp.com

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