Restaurant and bar owners in Hong Kong have reacted with anger and disappointment to the government’s requirements for easing the coronavirus restrictions on their businesses.
New conditions announced by Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor on Monday mean restaurants and bars must ensure all staff have had at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, while all customers will have to use the government’s contact-tracing app.
Some business owners said authorities were putting them between a rock and a hard place, as they could not force employees to be vaccinated, and would not want to offend customers by turning them away for not having the “Leave Home Safe” app on their phones.
“As an employer, I feel like I am being put in a very difficult situation. The government seems to offer some ways to ease our plight. But in fact the new conditions are hard to implement and leave us with no choice,” said Ray Chui Man-wai, the chairman of industry body Institute of Dining Art.
Many restaurant bosses, including Chui, said they had not decided whether to accept the measures as they needed to discuss them further with their partners and staff. Those who fail to fulfil the new conditions can continue operating under the existing rules, which cap the maximum number of people per table at four, forbid dine-in services after 10pm and allow customers to simply write down their contact details rather than use the government app.
Restaurateur Simon Wong Kit-lung, who runs 39 eateries employing 700 people under the LH Group, announced on Facebook on Monday night that his restaurants would stick to the existing operational model as they could not force employees to get vaccinated.
“We really can’t force people to take jabs. It’s up to them to decide whether they are willing to do so,” he said. “To be able to extend operating hours and serve six persons per table is surely a very attractive offer. But at present we can still afford to give up this offer. We only need to work harder.”
Lam has laid out a three-stage road map for easing business restrictions on restaurants and bars, as part of the government’s bid to incentivise more people to get vaccinated. The new measures are expected to take effect on April 29 at the earliest, and will be enforced in stages.
For restaurants, the first step will allow for tables of six people, up from four, who will be free to stay until midnight, rather than having to leave at 10pm. But, all of those diners must record their visit using the app, and staff must have been given at least one vaccine dose.
Restaurants serving those groups will still be subject to restrictions limiting them to operating at less than half of their original capacity, with no more than 20 diners allowed at a banquet.
The next stage requires all restaurant employees to be fully vaccinated and customers to have received at least one dose. Diners will be allowed to eat in groups of eight and banquets to serve 100 people, with operating hours for dine-in services extended to 2am.
In the third phase, up to 12 people will be able to sit together at a table, but only if all employees and customers have been fully vaccinated.
Restaurants will need to designate specific clean zones for customers who have had at least one Covid-19 jab.
Bars and pubs will also be allowed to reopen in phases, on the condition every member of staff and customer has had a first dose of coronavirus vaccine, and all customers use the Leave Home Safe app. Those limitations can be relaxed if all staff and customers are fully vaccinated.
Chui, also chairman of Kam Kee Holdings, which owns about 36 restaurants and employs more than 800 staff, said he could not force his staff to take jabs, saying so far only about 10 per cent of them had received the shots.
“Some staff may be reluctant to get jabbed due to health concerns,” he said. “If some of them refuse to get vaccinated, I cannot sack them as it is discriminatory.
“For diners, many old people or kids don’t have a smartphone, should I turn them away simply because they can’t install the government app? Also, many people resist using the app. I don’t want to offend my customers and force them to use the app.”
Chui was also concerned that he might be held responsible for an employee who got a jab because they felt they had to, and then became ill. “Would I be held liable if they fall ill after they take the jabs?” he said.
Simon Wong, of LH Group agreed, saying: “Among our staff, some have a chronic condition, while some are pregnant or have allergies. Also there must be some employees who are unwilling to get jabbed.”
Thai restaurant boss Sae Ngow Vasunt who runs six restaurants employing about 70 staff, called the plan highly intrusive, and said the government had unfairly shifted its responsibility for getting people vaccinated onto the catering sector.
“The core of the problem is that Hong Kong people don’t trust the government,” he said. “They feel offended by the measures requiring them to use the government app and get vaccinated for being able to dine in. It sounds like a threat to the people.”
Sae called on the government to rethink the plan’s feasibility, and said it “should think hard about whether this plan is workable and can ease the economic recovery”.
Ben Leung Lap-yan, charter president of the Licensed Bar and Club Association of Hong Kong, said he was “offended and disappointed” by the move, adding the bar industry still needed to work out the details with the government.
“The government should use its own ways to encourage people to get inoculated,” he said. “Its vaccination drive shouldn’t be tied in with easing business restrictions on bars.”
However, Simon Wong Ka-wo, president of the Hong Kong Federation of Restaurants and Related Trades, believed the new move could encourage people to get jabbed, and backed making the contact-tracing app compulsory for diners.
“I have been advocating that the government require diners to use the app compulsorily instead of allowing them to fill out a form about their contact details, as many people have provided inaccurate information,” he said.
But housewife Ashley Chan described the new moves as ridiculous, invasive and rude, questioning why the government was forcing people to use its app and get vaccinated.
“Why can’t I leave my information in writing? Why should my honesty be questioned?” she asked, noting she was still “concerned with the safety of vaccines and the security of the app”.
Overall, Hong Kong’s vaccination rate remains low. As of Monday, about 877,900 doses of vaccine had been administered to the general public. Only 8 per cent of the city’s 7.5 million people have received a first dose, while just 3.7 per cent have been fully vaccinated.