By Farah Master and Aleksander Solum
HONG KONG (Reuters) -In Hong Kong’s famed party zone Lan Kwai Fong, dormant bars and clubs opened to serve customers again, but only for those who have had at least one vaccine shot – one of the few examples globally of offering greater freedom for the vaccinated. Bar staff need to have gotten at least one coronavirus vaccine dose too, and patrons must register with a government mobile tracking application as they enter.
“Before it was a dead city, now it has loosened a little and everyone is happier,” said Vanessa, a 25-year-old office worker who was visiting the popular bar district. The Chinese special administrative region has kept COVID-19 transmission largely under control. Hong Kong has recorded more than 11,700 coronavirus cases, far lower than other developed cities. The new rules come as authorities there try to encourage the city’s 7.5 million residents to get vaccinated; only about 12% have received their first dose. “The re-opening of bars and the extension of opening hours are incentives for people to receive the vaccination, while the most important thing … is to prevent the spread of the infection, should it hit us again,” said Professor Lau Chak Sing, head of department of Medicine at the University of Hong Kong (HKU). “In an ideal situation, one should complete the course of vaccination to ensure protection,” he said, adding that with Hong Kong’s adequate supply of vaccines, people eager to go to bars would complete both their first and second doses. Venues including nightclubs, karaoke lounges and bathhouses, can stay open until 2 a.m. from Thursday but must operate at half capacity, Sophia Chan, the city’s Health Secretary said. Bars can only seat two people per table.
Customers must scan the government’s app and show their vaccination record – stored electronically on their mobile phones – when they enter. Many residents have declined to use the app because of privacy concerns, choosing instead to write down their details. Restaurants can stay open until 2 a.m. and seat up to 8 people at a table, provided they have received both vaccine doses. But they must have a separate area for unvaccinated customers, and depending on whether staff have been vaccinated, might be required to close 10 p.m. or midnight. The multi-tiered rules are tough to implement immediately, industry executives said, and many venues cannot open fully as they cannot force staff to get vaccinated. Allan Zeman, chairman of Lan Kwai Fong Group, a property owner and developer in the nightclub district, said that bar owners were desperate to reopen but that there remained a lot of apprehension among staff about vaccinations. “The restrictions will not be easy. Customers themselves need to have one vaccine, that in itself is very limiting,” he said, adding that the measures were a baby step forward and an experiment for both the government and the industry.
Ben Leung, president of Hong Kong’s Licensed Bar and Club Association, said only around 50% of the city’s 1280 bars would open on Thursday with others remaining closed until all their workers had received vaccinations.
Simon Wong, chief executive of LH Group, which operates dozens of restaurants and employs hundreds of staff, wrote on his Facebook page that the new arrangement was “so complicated”. Wong said his restaurants would only be able to seat 4 people per table and stay open until 10 p.m., as many staff did not want to get vaccinated. Hong Kong residents have been hesitant since the vaccination programme began in February because of a lack of confidence in China’s Sinovac vaccine and fears of adverse reactions. Some residents have shown greater take-up for the vaccine offered by Germany’s BioNTech in the city but overall figures remain far below satisfactory, said the city’s leader, Carrie Lam.
(Additional reporting by Donny Kwok and Joyce Zhou ; Writing by Farah Master. Editing by Gerry Doyle and Toby Chopra)