Hong Kong's Lan Kwai Fong bar district is devoid of diners and revelers amid the viral outbreak. Photo: Facebook

The watering holes along the steep lanes not far from Hong Kong’s glittering Central financial district may be creeping with the novel coronavirus. There have been at least five cases of people becoming ill after patronizing bars and eateries in the Lan Kwai Fong (LKF) bar district, a popular haunt for locals and visitors.

Alarm over the new cases may further slash the income of establishments in the area, where the still-unfolding pneumonic outbreak has already scared away diners and revelers. The usual crowds disappeared at the end of January, when the first resident came down with the contagious disease caused by the Covid-19 virus, which originated in China’s Wuhan.

A Hong Kong man who tested positive yesterday had partied in LKF during the incubation period, and three women taken ill by the pathogen had also gone for drinks and meals in the popular entertainment area within the past week, according to the city’s Center for Health Protection. Two other patients told the authorities they had visited a gym in the area run by the Pure Group.  

Common sense may dictate that socializing in bars is best avoided, but some people appear to believe that they are safe now that establishments have fallen quiet .

Lan Kwai Fong, Hong Kong’s most famous bar district, in its heyday. Photos: Asia Times

Government pathologists are investigating whether the virus is being transmitted between people in bars and restaurants, and they will also examine the travel history of those infected. The suspicion is that foreign visitors who are asymptomatic transmit the virus or infect tableware and surfaces, exposing the next patron to the pathogen.

Early on in the city’s outbreak, a cluster of cases was linked to a family’s hotpot party gathering, and there have been other virus scares involving banquets. 

Also, three branches of a well-known gym in Central, including one in LKF, are shutting their doors for 14 days due to visits by two infected members.

The Pure Fitness company had initially said the three branches had been deep-cleaned and would remain open but it quickly reversed the decision, putting out a statement about the temporary closures.

Hong Kong business magnet Allan Zeman, hailed as the father of LKF, reportedly said his LKF Group would waive a substantial portion of the rent for its struggling tenants.

Health officials have renewed their calls for “social distancing,” even though the city’s infection curve has flattened since the beginning March, when Europe and the United States became the new hotspots.

Still, Hong Kong saw an alarming surge in new cases – 48 within 24 hours, mostly involving overseas visitors and Hongkongers returning home – bringing the total to 256 as of Friday. The tally is still low compared with countries across Asia such as Singapore (345).

A woman wears a face mask as a preventative measure against the Covid-19 coronavirus, as she watches a race during the Hong Kong Gold Cup day at the Sha Tin racecourse on February 16, 2020. Photo: AFP

The city’s government, while appealing for continued vigilance, has stopped short of shutting all bars and restaurants, or even ban dine-in services as they have done in mainland Chinese cities. It has also decided against banning all non-locals from entering Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, the University of Hong Kong warned on Friday that the city is at its “highest risk” of a sustained local outbreak when people drop their guard. The HKU researchers, from the WHO Collaborating Centre for Infectious Disease Epidemiology and Control, said the rate of infection in the city – an average of how many people are infected by a person who tests positive for the virus – has risen above one in recent days.

“This is the worst time to become complacent because we’re at the highest risk since this began. It is absolutely critical, especially as we have this influx of Hong Kong returnees starting from a few days ago and may continue for the next few days. We must be extra vigilant,” said Professor Gabriel Leung, head of HKU’s medical school.

Cathay Pacific planes sit idle on the tarmac of Hong Kong’s airport. Photo: Facebook

In a separate development, Hong Kong’s flagship carrier, Cathay Pacific, which has the largest international network among all Asian airlines, has scheduled only three flights per week to a total of 12 destinations throughout April and May, as countries scramble to close borders and people cancel trips. That means almost its entire fleet of 368 wide-body jets will be grounded, along with its 20,000-plus pilots and flight attendants.

The airline said “bare skeleton” service will mean just three flights per week to a dozen destinations: London, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Tokyo, Taipei, New Delhi, Bangkok, Jakarta, Manila, Ho Chi Minh City, Singapore and Sydney to keep the vital artery routes from Hong Kong still open.

Cathay’s subsidiary Hong Kong Express, a budget carrier plying routes to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, will completely halt its operations starting next Monday.

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