Coronavirus: Life returns to normal in Hong Kong as businesses reopen and people start going out

The Hong Kong government loosened social distancing rules on the back of no new local Covid-19 transmission. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

HONG KONG - Life has returned to the quiet streets and empty shops as businesses, forced to close amid the outbreak, reopened on Friday (May 8) after the government loosened social distancing rules on the back of no new local Covid-19 transmission.

More people were spotted out and about in popular districts in Tsim Sha Tsui, Causeway Bay and Central.

After forced closures for weeks, several venues, including gaming centres, gyms, cinemas, massage and beauty parlours, as well as mahjong clubs are now allowed to open their doors to customers, with certain restrictions to remain till May 21.

They are to operate at half their capacity and masks are to be worn. Cinemas, for instance, can have no more than eight people in a single row, and no food and drinks are to be served.

Beauticians cannot perform certain treatments and must wear masks and eye shields when serving customers, who have to be 1.5m apart, similar to how far tables have to be spaced apart in eateries.

Beauty salon owner Candy Wong, in her 40s, said her shops are fully booked for six days following the announcement on Tuesday by the government about the easing of the rules. Her shops had been shut for a month.

Similarly, restaurants, which can now take bookings of up to eight in a group, are starting to get reservations, particularly as it is Mother's Day this weekend.

Mr Kwok Wang Hing, chairman of the Eating Establishment Employees General Union, welcomes the government's decision but noted that the food and beverage sector will continue to suffer.

"Over the Mother's Day weekend, business for restaurants will be slightly better but the outlook is still bleak," he said, noting that F&B giant Maxim's will be letting 100 employees go.

Maxim's Group, famed for its old-school dim sum restaurants and bakeries, on Thursday sent out letters to notify those affected - mainly chefs and wait staff.

Business for the group, which has about 20,000 staff, suffered as a result of months of protests and now the pandemic.

Besides increasing the size of public gatherings from four to eight people, the authorities have allowed bars and pubs to reopen from Friday. But there must be no live music, no dancing; the number of patrons has to be half the maximum capacity and no more than four customers to a table.

In the light of this, some bars and pubs in Prince Edwards were reported by RTHK to have wasted no time in reopening at the stroke of midnight as customers waited to be served.

Karaoke bars, bath houses and night clubs will remain closed until further notice.

Dining and entertainment venues have been hit particularly hard by social distancing measures as people stay indoors.

The value of total retail sales in March, provisionally estimated at HK$23 billion (S$4.2 billion), fell 42 per cent compared with a year ago, the Census and Statistics Department said on Tuesday. The value of sales of food, alcoholic drinks and tobacco fell 21.2 per cent.

Along with businesses, schools will also reopen in phases, but from May 27.

There has been no local infection for more than two weeks. The number of new imported cases has also been low. As at Friday, the total confirmed cases stood at 1,044.

The government has been under pressure to ease regulations to lift an economy battered by the pandemic and before that, months of unrest.

On Monday, Financial Secretary Paul Chan said Hong Kong's economy in the first quarter of the year contracted 8.9 per cent from the year-ago period, making it the largest decline on record since 1974.

For the full year, Mr Chan projects the economy to contract by 4 per cent to 7 per cent.

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