HONG KONG - Testing centres in the city are running at full steam as businesses gear up for reopening and workers rush to get themselves cleared of Covid-19 ahead of restrictions easing from Thursday (Feb 18).
Appointment slots have been fully booked till Thursday with long queues spotted at testing centres islandwide, prompting calls for the government to set up more mobile testing centres.
The Catering Trade Workers Union on Tuesday welcomed the easing of measures but urged the authorities to set up more testing centres and deploy more mobile testing vehicles to lower the risk of workers congregating as they await to be tested.
Federation of Restaurants and Related Trades president Simon Wong was quoted by local media as saying that more than 20,000 workers from the catering sector were heading to testing centres daily. He estimated that there were a quarter of a million people employed in the sector.
Food and Health Secretary Sophia Chan on Feb 10 announced that some businesses such as beauty and massage parlours, gyms, theme parks, museums, performance arts venues, cinemas and other leisure venues would be allowed to reopen from Thursday.
Dine-in services would also be extended for another four hours to 10pm daily and the number of patrons allowed at each table doubled to four. But the easing would be contingent on all staff getting tested every 14 days and patrons using the LeaveHomeSafe tracing app or having their personal information recorded.
In late November, bars, pubs, saunas, clubs, nightclubs and party rooms were ordered to close. The list of venues to be shut expanded in early December to include all amusement game centres, leisure venues, mahjong clubs and swimming pools.
More businesses such as beauty parlours, massage establishments and gyms were added to the list on Dec 10, with dine-in services ordered to end at 6pm.
The easing of measures have offered struggling businesses hope.
But not all have been enthusiastic about the move. Ms Candy Wong, the owner of a beauty parlour, who was among those forced to close her business, had resisted getting tested as she feared the risk of getting infected could be high at a community testing centre.
"Now we'll have to go for the tests because the government has made it mandatory before we can open," she said.
Some, like the Black Sheep Restaurants, have made it mandatory for their entire workforce to get tested before Thursday.
Prior to the government's announcement, the group had been conducting random tests since November, with about 20 staff being tested every three to four days.
"As we have continued to have team members tested at these regular intervals we feel positive as we look towards reopening for dinner and that everyone who is working in the restaurants will have received a negative test recently," said operations director Jonathan Leung.
Bars, however, will remain shut, prompting the chairman of the Bartenders and Mixologists Union Cat Hou to point out on Tuesday that bars had been closed for half the time last year and one-fifth of Hong Kong's 1,200 bars have folded.
Professor Chan said at a Tuesday briefing that there was now room for the gradual loosening of measures as daily numbers have fallen to single digits but that some premises such as bathhouses, mahjong clubs, nightclubs, party rooms and swimming pools would have to remain shut.
In addition to staff working in beauty parlours and eateries, all construction site workers from Feb 22 will have to present a negative test result from within the past two weeks to be allowed to work.
Businesses that fail to comply with the infection control measures will be ordered to shut for between three to 14 days. Operators can also face a maximum fine of HK$50,000 (S$8,500) and a six-month jail term.
The city on Tuesday recorded eight new infections - the lowest in three months - bringing the total tally to 10,796 and 195 deaths since the start of the pandemic.
On Sunday, Civil Service Secretary Patrick Nip said that the first batch of one million doses of vaccine from BioNTech was expected to land by the end of February.
Mr Nip, who is in charge of the city's Covid-19 vaccination programme, said people could start getting their shots at the beginning of March.
There will be at least one vaccination centre in each of the 18 districts, he said, adding that officials had been conducting rehearsals on vaccine storage and transportation.
The vaccine advisory committee on Tuesday said the benefits of the Chinese-made Sinovac vaccine outweighed possible risks and that it would recommend it for emergency use.