Thousands of Hongkongers flocked to Mong Kok's flower market on Saturday after health authorities tackling an Omicron-fuelled wave of coronavirus cases abruptly cancelled traditional Lunar New Year fairs, disappointing shoppers and florists alike.
In Mong Kok, Flower Market Road, known locally as fa hui, was packed as locals did their shopping 2 1/2 weeks before Lunar New Year, which begins on February 1.
Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee said the popular Lunar New Year fairs had to be banned as invisible transmission chains of the Omicron variant remained in the city.
"The decision to cancel the Lunar New Year fairs was a tough one," she said. "From a public health perspective, we want to control the epidemic as soon as possible so we cannot hold large gatherings."
Chan also said the Home Affairs Department and police were working together to monitor crowds in Yau Tsim Mong district, where people normally flock for wholesale flowers and discount goods.
Flower markets are traditionally set up in public parks and on football pitches at Lunar New Year, with thousands of florists and festive goods vendors selling decorations and traditional food.
The government announced on Friday it was cancelling fairs at 15 sites because of a growing spread of infections.
Among the Saturday shoppers in Mong Kok were 30-something couple Vivi Chung and Cato Chow who said they did not expect the area to be so crowded.
"Mong Kok is usually busy but we didn't expect this many people," Chow said. "It's disappointing the fairs were cancelled."
Chung said they expected to spend around HK$2,000 on orchids, narcissus and decorations - and to leave the area in under an hour. "I actually wanted to get it all done in 30 minutes so we're not in the crowded area for too long but it's so packed it's going to take a while for us to get out," she said.
A vendor of locally grown mandarin trees said cancelling the fairs was a big inconvenience for the flower industry.
"It's a big headache. We were all looking forward to selling our produce at the fairs but now we have to make last-minute changes on how to distribute tens of thousands of mandarin plants," said the 62-year-old vendor, surnamed Leung.
Leung said it would be difficult for authorities to implement crowd control measures on Flower Market Road as part of pandemic measures.
"I've been working here for more than two decades, it's a known fact the area gets crowded even when people can buy flowers at other fairs all over the city," he said.
"How are they supposed to do crowd control in the middle of the road? Why can't we just set up the fairs with social-distancing measures and vaccine bubble requirements?"
Farms and suppliers of flowers, typically mandarins, orchids, narcissus and peach blossoms, were left scratching their heads about the cancellation.
Li Wing-keung, owner of Keung Kee Garden in Tai Po, said losses could "potentially be in the millions" without the fairs.
"I can't think too much about losses at the moment. The cancellation of the fairs was announced (on Friday) and our team is trying to organise alternative sales channels," he said.
Li said all his staff were vaccinated in preparation for setting up 14 booths at various fairs but now the company faced a backlog of orders.
"We welcome everyone to our farm to buy flowers and decorations but please, as much as possible, customers have to organise their own transport to and from the farm. We don't have enough staff to make deliveries by ourselves," he said.
Hong Kong online retailer HKTVmall had hosted 10 live-stream shows over the past two weeks to promote the products of local florists and help them to generate sales.
Last year, authorities made a last-minute U-turn by allowing flower markets at major venues to go ahead, after florists had made alternative product distribution plans.
Shopping centres were also hosting markets featuring festive goods.
East Point City mall in Tseung Kwan O launched a flower market fair on Saturday until the end of the month selling a mix of locally grown and Japanese imported orchids.
Five malls owned by developer Sun Hung Kai Properties will also host their own Chinese markets until the end of the month. Shoppers can choose from more than 3,000 flowers and other traditional festive foods at APM mall in Kwun Tong, Tai Po Mega Mall, Yuen Long Plaza, New Jade Shopping Arcade in Chai Wan and Chi Fu Landmark in Pok Fu Lam.
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