HONG KONG • The normally packed streets of Hong Kong's Lan Kwai Fong bar district were virtually empty on Monday night. So too was a popular Italian eatery in Wan Chai. In the SoHo area frequented by expat bankers and lawyers, the crowds were unusually thin.
Hong Kong's sprawling drinking and dining scene has long been a cornerstone of life in the financial hub, where apartments are so tiny that hosting friends at home is often unfeasible. But after nearly nine months of turmoil - first caused by anti-government protests and now the coronavirus outbreak - concern is growing that thousands of bars, clubs and restaurants across the city will be forced to close as their losses mount.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam delivered the latest blow this week, saying she would ask bars and restaurants to stop selling alcohol, in a bid to dissuade residents from gathering in large groups.
On Tuesday, Singapore followed that move by announcing the closure of all bars and cinemas and suspension of religious services as of midnight on Thursday. While Britain also recently shut down eateries and pubs, Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government has pledged to pay rent and 80 per cent of staff salaries for the duration.
Mrs Lam said Hong Kong would "certainly consider" measures to help the establishments affected, but she did not elaborate.
Mr Syed Asim Hussain, co-founder of hospitality group Black Sheep Restaurants which operates Hong Kong eateries popular with expats, including two venues that have been temporarily closed in a building visited by an infected guest, said: "Last summer, there were 15,000 restaurants in Hong Kong, and I anticipate that by this summer there will be fewer than 10,000.
"We and others are looking at three successive quarters of financial losses. So we squarely are between a rock and a hard place."
Mrs Lam's announcement followed a recent jump in the number of Hong Kong residents who have tested positive for the virus. Several of them had reportedly been out drinking in Lan Kwai Fong.
Front-page photos of expats gathered at bars have featured prominently in local news outlets, alongside articles admonishing drinkers for potentially spreading the virus.
Other major metropolitan areas, including New York City and San Francisco, have effectively shut down restaurants and bars or limited establishments to takeaways and delivery as the virus spreads. Italy, Spain and France have implemented blanket closures.
Some Hong Kong residents have questioned whether bars are truly the hotbeds of transmission the government is making them out to be. "They are clearly making these decisions on the fly and with bad inputs - a few photos of people chatting in bars and a few cases from LKF (Lan Kwai Fong), and suddenly alcohol is the cause because it lowers inhibitions," said Mr David Webb, an investor and corporate governance activist who has lived in Hong Kong since 1991.
Restaurant and bar receipts totalled about HK$26 billion (S$4.83 billion) in last year's fourth quarter, down 14 per cent from a year earlier.
LACK OF INFORMATION
Some in the industry expressed frustration with a lack of information from the government, including when a ban might start.
"I think we have a responsibility to encourage people to enact social distancing - and since local media started pointing the finger at Lan Kwai Fong, customers aren't coming, anyway," said Mr Ravi Beryar, operations manager at music and sports bar Rula Live. "But my staff need to know how long it'll be until we reopen, and my landlord needs to know."
Dr Allan Zeman, chairman of the Hong Kong real estate firm that developed the Lan Kwai Fong area, told Bloomberg TV that his firm was appealing to Mrs Lam for government aid for local bars and restaurants. As a landlord, he could only help "up to a certain point", he said.
"You still have payments to banks, and repayments and other things," Dr Zeman said. "The operators themselves also need to be able to help themselves, but we'll do whatever we can to tide us through this difficult period.
"The problem that my tenants have, and many of the operators have, is that if you can't serve alcohol they'll go out of business because they're bars or clubs," he said. "That's the only thing they sell."
Some bar operators are hoping they can find ways to keep serving alcohol while promoting social distancing. "I hope we can sell bottled beers to customers to take home," said Ms Annie Lam, who runs The Beer Bay, a popular haunt for commuters transiting through Hong Kong's central ferry pier.
Mr Ronny Daswani, co-founder of carry-out craft beer shop Craftissimo in the trendy Sheung Wan neighbourhood, said his store did not appear to be immediately included in the government's ban and that he tentatively planned to remain open. But he added he was willing to shut down temporarily if it would help curb the outbreak.
"A ban would really impact Hong Kong Island," Mr Daswani said. "Alcohol was one of the only resorts in these hard times."