Hong Kong registered a record 150 new confirmed COVID-19 cases on Thursday, medical sources said, as the government caved to public pressure and reversed its all-day ban on eating in restaurants.
The three-figure increase was the ninth day in a row the city registered 100-plus new infections.
Dining in at breakfast and lunchtime had been stopped as part of the stringent measures brought in to combat the third wave of the coronavirus.
But the government reversed that after workers were forced to eat by the side of the road on Wednesday when the initial ban took effect.
Dine-in services will return for those times from Friday, with restaurants again limited to serving takeaway only between 6 pm and 5 am.
“After reviewing the actual situation of the catering business [on Wednesday] with the suspension of dine-in meals, the government understands the inconvenience and difficulties that the measure will bring to employees,” the government said in a statement.
From Friday, restaurants must take more stringent epidemic-prevention measures, including allowing only two people per table. Additionally, establishments can only be half full.
The spokesman reiterated the purpose of the full-day suspension had been to prevent the virus from spreading in the community.
“The government once again strongly urges employers to allow their employees to work at home as much as possible, so as to reduce the chance of a large number of employees gathering at breakfast and lunch,” he said.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s administration had come in for strong criticism and was accused of not being prepared for the consequences of the ban.
On Wednesday, people were seen eating under bridges, at transport interchanges, and in air-conditioned public corridors in shopping centres.
The government then announced it would open 19 community halls on Thursday for those who had nowhere to go to eat lunch.
The government’s latest decision came as two public health experts, Dr David Hui Shu-cheong, and Dr Ho Pak-leung, also changed their stances, and called for the reinstatement of dining services.
Ho, a microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong, apologised for supporting a dine-in ban in the first place and was sorry workers were forced to eat their lunches on the street.
He now believed such a ban would never work in the city without other supporting measures, such as a partial lockdown, which would stop most of the labourers from working too.
While he supported the government’s decision to change their policy immediately, he reminded the public to be mindful of the risk.
“A dine-in ban in Hong Kong is impossible, I now see that this will never work,” Ho said. “That is not the way to go, so it is good for the government to reopen the restaurants with some precautions.
“At the same time, the public should know that there is always a risk when you eat in a place with strangers.”
However, Chinese infectious disease expert Zhong Nanshan believed the dine-in ban was necessary.
“One of the effective measures being adopted is that the Hong Kong government will ban dine-in service,” Zhong told China Central Television on Wednesday.
“Because many Hong Kong families do not cook for themselves, and they go outside to eat, so restaurants are an important source of infection. It is important to ban dine-in service.”