HONG KONG - Locals and business operators across Hong Kong rejoiced on Thursday (April 21) as the city relaxed its strict social distancing measures after more than three months under tight restrictions aimed at bringing the Covid-19 situation in the territory under control.
But it was too late for some businesses that had already gone bust over the past several months.
Among the lunchtime crowd around the city's Central Business District on Thursday, there was a palpable sense of excitement and greater footfall was noticeable in the malls and along streets near office buildings.
Restaurants and small eateries were more crowded than usual, taking in up to four diners per table, compared with a cap of just two before. Some had lines outside as diners awaited their turn to be seated.
"People are happy that we can now go out (in a group of) four people and that hotel buffets are back," said an office worker in her 40s, who wanted to be known only as Ms Chong.
Ms Chong said she had made an app booking for lunch with three of her colleagues at the Jade Garden restaurant in Cityplaza mall in Tai Koo Shing ahead of time, "but when we arrived, we still had to wait for 30 other reservations in front of us before we were seated".
She added: "I have booked a facial appointment as well. I called a few days ahead to ensure that I'm on their priority list."
Restaurant operators said they expected bigger crowds later in the evening and especially over the upcoming weekend, now that a dine-in ban from 6pm has been moved to 10pm.
But, as night fell, many eateries in the popular Wan Chai area remained fairly empty.
Just three tables were occupied at Filipino fusion restaurant Holy Gaw, less than half its capacity.
"We've already seen slightly better business this afternoon and over the past week," said a wait staff member, shrugging off the lacklustre business.
Dan Ryan's Chicago Grill across the street was doing slightly better, with most of its outdoor dining area occupied.
Many high-end and mid-range dining places said they were already fully booked over the weekend.
The Clipper Lounge, a popular afternoon tea and buffet restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental hotel, said it was all booked out, with its next earliest available dine-in slot on May 1, nearly two weeks later.
Staff at bubble tea shop Cha For Tea at the Admiralty office area said business seemed more brisk compared with previous days. They were glad business was picking up after months in the doldrums, even if it meant they had to be slightly overworked.
Beauty parlours and fitness centres which survived the tough times were also reporting good business.
Beauty salon chain Skin Laundry said its four branches had all been booked up for the day, with only a handful of less popular timings still available for bookings over the next several days.
Gyms, some of which reopened from midnight, were also packed. Prime time slots at Pure Fitness and Pure Yoga - one of the few leading fitness centres still operating in the city - were either fully booked or waitlisted.
About a third of the city's 300 24-hour gyms have closed for good.
Major chain Fitness First shut all eight of its centres last month after more than two decades of operating in Hong Kong. Goji Studios also closed all eight of its gyms late last year.
Pure shut down its first yoga studio in the city, The Centrium in Central, in March after 20 years in operation.
For Broadway Circuit - a cinema chain with 13 theatres across Hong Kong - bookings for showings of Fantastic Beasts: The Secret Of Dumbledore, one of its most popular movie offerings, were slowly filling up.
Staff at one of its theatres, Movie Movie Pacific Place, said they were not particularly busy yet, but that business would likely improve over the next several days.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said last week that cinemas across the city had been shut for more than 260 days over the course of the pandemic. Some had already closed down or changed hands, including the Pacific Place branch.
The easing of the Covid-19 rules now allow theatres to reopen at only half their capacity. Most theatres are not permitting food and beverage, although the new rules allow for that provided that all customers and staff have received three doses of a vaccine.
At Hong Kong's most popular theme parks, Disneyland and Ocean Park, about a hundred or more guests waited at the gates for their reopening at around 10am, local media reported.
The theme parks and other operators have been closed for three months since Hong Kong imposed more stringent restrictions in January, although they were open on and off before that.
Industry leaders expect the city's battered businesses to experience a boom, especially the catering sector, which could see business surging as much as 20 per cent, according to local media reports.
A government measure to distribute the first half of "consumption vouchers" totalling HK$10,000 (S$1,700) to spur spending has also seen some effect in recent days as people took to the malls in droves even before the rules were eased over the four-day Easter holidays.
Not all will be rushing out to celebrate the loosened restrictions though.
"I certainly won't be venturing out today," said Ms Erin Chan, 24, a freelance designer. "Whenever the Covid-19 restrictions ease, Hong Kongers will come out to roam the city like captive animals released from the zoo. I'm planning to lie low for a while first as I'm sure the infection figures will rebound significantly."
Bank employee Benjamin Tham was taking precautions as well.
"I'm avoiding the gyms since they'll probably be crowded," said Mr Tham, in his early 40s, who has a membership with Pure.
"Unlike before, there are no arrangements where it's mask-free within certain gyms or classes. I really don't want to attend intensive cardio or yoga classes wearing a mask, so I'd prefer to sit it out for another week to see if the Covid-19 situation explodes."
So far Hong Kong's daily Covid-19 figures have yet to show any clear sign of a rebound despite crowds already having headed out in full force over the long holiday weekend.
The city reported 628 Covid-19 infections on Thursday, down 40 cases from the day before, but already a huge drop from the more than a thousand daily cases over the past several weeks. There were 26 new virus-related deaths.
Hong Kong has recorded around two million Covid-19 infections in all, and about 9,000 deaths.
Hong Kong's adherence to China's "dynamic zero" Covid-19 policy - which involves eliminating outbreaks through strict mitigation measures - has come at a great cost to its economy.
The city's unemployment rate rose to 5 per cent in March - its highest level in nine months - from 4.5 per cent the month before, official data showed on Thursday.
Underemployment also edged up by 0.8 percentage points to 3.1 per cent.
The job market worsened in nearly all the major economic sectors, especially in construction, retail, accommodation and food services, the government said.
"Things haven't really improved that much in most of April and therefore it's quite likely that a lot of employers may still be rather conservative in terms of employing more people," Natixis economist Gary Ng told local broadcaster RTHK.
There is little respite for the travel sector for now. Hong Kong's flagship airline Cathay Pacific is operating at only about 2 per cent its pre-pandemic passenger capacity, as the city's stringent quarantine rules and flight bans discourage travellers in the once-bustling global financial hub.
Its crew and staff spent more than 73,000 nights - the equivalent of 200 years - in quarantine in 2021 alone, the airline said last month. It has experienced a sustained spike in pilot resignations since late last year.
Cathay has seen record losses since the pandemic began. It has cut thousands of jobs, lowered staff salaries and forced employees to go on unpaid leave.