Restaurants will be allowed to use all their tables from April 23, 2020. Photo: Asia Times

Social distancing measures and the shutdown of some businesses including bars, fitness centers and beauty parlors in Hong Kong has been extended for 14 days, the government announced Tuesday.

However, restaurants will be allowed to use all their tables from Thursday, instead of being forced to cut the number of tables by half. Other measures like compulsory mask wearing, a limit of four people per table and a distance of 1.5 metres between tables will remain in place.

Before the latest announcement, the ban on public gatherings of more than four people and the forced closure of venues such as bars, gyms and cinemas were due to expire on Thursday.

These measures put in place by the government to fight the coronavirus pandemic will be extended until May 7, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said Tuesday in a briefing before the weekly Executive Council meeting. 

Lam said it was a difficult decision because of the adverse impact on residents and businesses, but she noted that Hong Kong was already in a better position than many other places as the city does not have to order a lockdown.

“The government totally understands that Hong Kong citizens feel helpless, that they have lost their normal social activities. A lot of inconvenience is caused to their leisure activities. But we should tolerate it for some time,” Lam said.

Lam said she had consulted with some experts and her colleagues before making the decision.

However Tommy Cheung, a pro-establishment legislator representing the catering sector and an Executive Council member, said he was disappointed with the government’s latest decision to extend social distancing measures until May 7.

Cheung said the government had consulted some advisers who know nothing about economics as both entrepreneurs and employees were suffering due to the suspension of their businesses. He said the government should consider lifting some of the stringent measures on some premises like karaoke clubs and bars.

A Chinese restaurant in Tseung Kwan O has been closed for several weeks due to a lack of customers. Photo: Asia Times

The government said Monday that the unemployment rate in Hong Kong rose to 4.2% between January and March, the highest level in nine years, compared with 3.7% between December and February. The underemployment rate rose from 1.5% to 2.1% for the period.

More than 28,000 people lost their jobs during the first three months of this year due to the Covid-19 epidemic.

The catering industry was the worst hit, with the unemployment rate surging to 8.6%. The retail and tourism sectors reported a jobless rate of 6.8%, the highest level since October 2009. The construction sector reported an unemployment rate of 8.5%.

Law Chi-kwong, the Secretary for Labour and Welfare, warned that the labor market would continue to face significant pressure from the economic fallout arising from the pandemic in the near term.

On Saturday, the Legislative Council approved HK$137.5 billion (US$17.74 billion) worth of relief measures proposed by the government. About HK$80 billion of funds would be used to help companies pay their employees’ salaries. 

On Tuesday, Hong Kong authorities identified four new cases of Covid-19 infections, bringing the total number of cases to 1,029 in the city. All four patients had a travel history.

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