HONG KONG - Even as the new wave of the Covid-19 outbreak moves towards its peak, people in Hong Kong feel safe enough to be out and about, prompting authorities to issue a grim warning and reinstate harsh measures rolled out just four months ago.
With a rebound in infections in the last two weeks of November, Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Tuesday (Dec 8) morning warned of tougher measures to curb the flow of people in public
Hours later, Secretary for Health Sophia Chan announced that from Thursday (Dec 10) till Dec 23, dine-in services will be stopped between 6pm and 4.59am the next day. The cap on patrons per table during dine-in hours will remain at two - same as the limit on public gatherings.
More businesses such as gyms, sports centres, beauty and massage parlours that are currently open will be closed.
Banquets now capped at 40 will be halved, while more civil servants are to work from home.
On Tuesday, Hong Kong recorded 100 new infections, bringing its total to more than 7,000 with 112 deaths. Of the new cases, 95 are local and 27 have unknown sources.
Health officials noted that in the past two weeks, there were 1,074 new cases or 15 per cent of all infections, and more than 90 per cent are local.
They said there are now at least seven clusters with more than 10 cases, including the dance club cluster that now has about 650 patients.
Prof Chan said the government now has the power to seal off areas hit by Covid-19 for up to seven days, so that tests can be carried out on people who are affected.
She said health officials would decide what areas are to be sealed off and for how long. Food and basic necessities will be given to those affected.
Officials repeatedly warned that there are now more patients who are younger in critical conditions this time round.
Said Mrs Lam: "Before this wave, the number of critical cases had dropped to a single digit. Now there is a sharp rise to 36, 40 patients in serious condition.
"More ICUs (intensive care units) have to be mobilised. Of the critical cases, six are under the age of 60 and two are under the age of 50. For serious cases, nine of them are under 60 and two of them are under 50."
She noted that in the last wave, most of those in serious and critical conditions were the elderly.
"From the observation of experts and our observation, it seems that the situation is more complicated, much, much more than the last one because we're talking about different people of different jobs living in different districts all over the territory," she added.
The decision comes as the city's streets remained busy most part of the day in recent weeks in a sign that business continues as usual, as people go about their daily routine.
The closure of leisure premises such as cinemas, karaoke lounges, bars and pubs is among the few hints of the pandemic's impact.
Come nightfall, it is lights out for the city of nightlife as eateries shutter from 8pm or 9pm with a government ban on dining-in services from 10pm.
Over the weekend, checks by The Straits Times found crowds either out doing a spot of Christmas shopping, trying to snag a now over-priced Christmas tree, as celebrations are destined to be at home with party rooms' forced closures, or families out enjoying the good weather at picnics in parks.
When asked, Professor Ben Cowling, an infectious disease expert from the University of Hong Kong, said he is more concerned about indoor crowds than outdoor crowds.
"It will be important for people to modify their behaviours again if we are to get over this fourth wave soon. Social distancing has been vital in bringing our previous waves to an end," he noted.
These developments come on the back of the government raising the fine for breaching social distancing measures to HK$5,000 (S$862) from HK$2,000 from Friday (Dec 11), among other previously tightened rules.
Officials are also mandating that specific groups undergo free tests, such as those in the dance club cluster and most recently, taxi drivers who plan to work from Christmas through to late January.
Dr Leung Chi Chiu of the Hong Kong Medical Association noted that besides weak enforcement on the part of the government, private businesses and the public have not adhered to officials' calls to stay home.
"The high degree of social mixing nullifies much of the efforts in testing and contact tracing in cutting the transmission links," he added.
On Sunday, health authorities said they had to move about 100 people who were being quarantined at Asia World Expo - where Covid-19 patients with milder conditions are now placed - into different halls.
This came after a worker at the temporary treatment facility was confirmed as infected. More were found infected on Tuesday, bringing the tally in this cluster to 12.
The outbreak at Kwai Shing West public housing estate has grown to 19. So far 2,300 of 3,100 residents there are being tested.
The other smaller cluster at the Centre of Health Protection has risen to four, one of whom was reported to have been in full protective gear.
As at Tuesday morning, 78 per cent of intensive care unit beds have been filled.