Coronavirus: Dining-in is back on the menu as Hong Kong government U-turns on ban

Eateries can run at half capacity, with each table capped at two diners, while the 1.5m rule between tables still applies. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG - The government has backpedalled on its decision to fully ban dining-in at eateries one day into the new rule kicking in, after drawing criticisms for the move, while the city hits a high in new daily coronavirus infections.

In a statement issued on Thursday (July 30), the government said after observing the implementation of the dine-in ban that it understood the measure "has inconvenienced and made it difficult for employees".

From Friday, people may dine in at eateries for breakfast and lunch, but only takeaways are allowed for dinner.

Eateries will run at half capacity, with each table capped at two diners, while the 1.5m rule between tables still applies.

The announcement came after blue-collar workers, including construction workers and cleaners, were seen having takeaways outdoors in heavy rain, or inside toilets or storerooms.

Previously, the government said it would open 19 community halls across the city between 11am and 3pm from Thursday for those without a place to lunch, but some said these halls may be too far for them.

The backpedalling comes as the government struggles to contain the community transmissions as the number of new infections surges daily.

For the ninth day in a row, Hong Kong added more than 100 new Covid-19 cases.

Health authorities said at the daily briefing that there were 149 new cases on Thursday - the highest in a single day - bringing the confirmed tally to 3,151, including 25 deaths.

Of the new infections, 145 were local cases, of which sources were unknown for 61 patients.

China's director of the State Key Laboratory of Respiratory Disease Zhong Nanshan suggested in a Xinhua interview that the Hong Kong government should provide territory-wide free nucleic acid screenings, with help from the mainland.

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The government must take firm action against people who "deliberately come out to make trouble" or "hold gatherings or demonstrations" during this crucial period, he said.

But Professor David Hui, a respiratory disease expert from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told a local radio station on Thursday that it is not practical to test everyone in the city.

This, as a person can be tested negative one day but positive in the days that follow.

Prof Hui said his peers have conducted an analysis with the results suggesting that the third wave of outbreak could be over by the end of August.

Over the past five weeks, community outbreaks have been growing faster than the healthcare services can cope with, as testing services are stretched to their limits and hospital beds for Covid-19 patients run out.

On Wednesday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam warned that Hong Kong is "on the verge of a large-scale community outbreak, which may lead to a collapse of our hospital system and cost lives, especially of the elderly".

To free up more beds for Covid-19 patients in serious conditions, the Hospital Authority on Thursday said there will be 500 beds and three doctors stationed at the new Covid-19 treatment facility at AsiaWorld-Expo convention centre.

Previously used as a coronavirus testing centre for incoming travellers, the centre will begin running in a few days' time and cater to patients in stable conditions who are aged between 18 and 60.

As pressure mounts on the government to contain the community spread, it rolled out tighter restrictions on Wednesday that halved the number at public gatherings to two and ordered people to wear masks at all times at outdoor public places.

Multiple venues, the list of which keeps expanding from gyms, cinemas, massage parlours to sports centres and swimming pools, have been ordered to shut since July 15 and will remain so until Aug 4.

On Thursday, the government also said civil servants, save for those providing emergency services and essential public services, will continue to work from home until Aug 9.

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