Hong Kong implemented its strictest suite of social distancing measures yet as the Asian financial hub looks set to be the first in the region where a new outbreak surpasses previous waves in severity.
Bars, gyms and beaches will be closed, public gatherings limited to four people, and fines will be doled out to those refusing to wear masks on public transport as authorities try to slow a growing resurgence. Officials said they detected 40 local cases on Tuesday, bringing the total outbreak to 224 people in around a week.
The breadth of Hong Kong’s social distancing measures reflects the large proportion of cases of unknown origins, which grew to a record of 24 out of 40 local cases on Tuesday. Because officials cannot identify where the infections are centered, they can’t deploy less-disruptive targeted measures like in South Korea and Japan and have instead levied broad policies for the whole city.
“The actual number of cases is quite high but more worrying is the proportion of unknown cases,” said Chuang Shuk-kwan, an official with the Department of Health, at a Tuesday briefing. “That means there are many unknown sources in the community that can spread easily.”
The sweeping set of measures, announced by Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Monday night, illustrate how the second and third waves of the coronavirus pandemic around the world could be worse than the initial outbreak, requiring ever more painful shutdowns. Australia’s second-largest city Melbourne and the U.S. state of California have also moved to re-impose lockdown restrictions as new waves of infection surge.
For residents finding themselves back in crisis after a six-week stretch of normal life, the change is jarring. While the closures are for an initial period of seven days, officials said they may be extended if the outbreak does not slow. Dining-in may be barred completely next, after now being limited to between 5 a.m. and 6 p.m., reported local media outlet RTHK citing Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan.
“I’m so depressed when I see the rising case numbers,” said Liu Jia, a 30-year-old investment banker. “I feel my career is stuck and I myself am also stuck physically in the city. Everything is back to the painful time we’ve been suffering months ago, and the entire year will be wasted.”
The resurgence will likely stamp out the tentative green shoots that Hong Kong’s battered economy had been showing. With locals unable to travel out of the city this summer, the retail and hospitality sectors had been seeing signs of a recovery in demand before the latest flareup.
“Hong Kong’s economy had just warmed up and now we have the third wave of outbreak,” said Francis Kwok, vice chairman of the Hong Kong Institute of Financial Analysts and Professional Commentators. “Working in the financial industry, the most vital thing for us is the economy so everyone can go to work and run business normally. The worsening outbreak will also affect the mood of the financial market.”
The broad restrictions on businesses are a source of frustration, said Herbert Chow, CEO of children’s clothing brand Chickeeduck Retail Hong Kong, who formerly owned an ice-skating rink in a shopping mall. The rink is being asked to close along with other leisure outlets like cinemas, although patrons are not in an enclosed space, he said.
“After having to close for 40 days from March 28 to May 7, now we are being asked to close again,” Chow said. “The government uses a broad stroke policy and treats everybody in this one sector the same.”