The Hong Kong government announced on Tuesday that it would maintain most existing social distancing restrictions for at least one more week from Friday due to an increase in local infections with unknown sources.
Current anti-epidemic rules include a ban on public gatherings with more than four people and mandatory mask-wearing in all public places. Restaurants and bars must cap the number of people per table at four and close at midnight.
The virus outbreak had eased in recent weeks but there were signs it could worsen due to a recent increase in cases that could not be traced, Sophia Chan, the Secretary for Food and Health, said on Tuesday. The government was assessing the impact of many people gathering during last week’s National Day and mid-autumn holidays, she said.
Commenting on the latest trend that more and more people had opted for staycation at local hotels, Chan said the situation was not satisfactory because it was risky to have many people gathering in hotel rooms, especially when they tended not to wear masks.
The Center for Health Protection said Tuesday that eight cases were recorded within the 24 hours on Monday, comprising three imported cases and five local infections. Among the local patients, two were linked to previous cases related to a cluster of Thai women while three other cases had unknown sources.
A 43-year-old man who worked at a Vietnamese restaurant in the Royal Garden Hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui felt ill on October 2 but still went to work on October 3. After he tested positive on Monday, six of his colleagues were sent to a quarantine center. The Center for Health Protection said it would contact customers who dined at the restaurant between September 30 and October 3 and ask them to submit test samples.
Two other patients included a 33-year-old man, who lived with his family in Wealthy Court in North Point and had a gathering with 15 relatives in Whampoa on October 1, and a 22-year-old student in Tuen Mun.
On Sunday, seven imported cases and four local infections were identified. One locally infected patient had no known source. Over the past week, 10 cases with unknown sources were recorded in Hong Kong.
Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the communicable disease branch of the Center for Health Protection, said the public should keep a social distance among themselves because some asymptomatic patients were still spreading the virus in the community. Chuang described the transmission as tinder that could cause a huge fire.
It was not the right time for the government to further relax social distancing because of the re-emergence of local infections that cannot be traced, Joseph Tsang Kay-yan, a specialist in infectious diseases, said in a RTHK radio program on Tuesday.
Tsang warned that clusters would emerge as social activities resumed and more people got together again. He said the risk of virus transmission in bars was high as people mingled and let their guard down under the influence of alcohol. He also pointed out that contact tracing of bar customers could be difficult.
Tsang said the government should step up inspection of high-risk venues such as bars to ensure people complied with anti-epidemic rules.
Last Saturday, a 22-year-old student tested positive after he visited a bar called China Secret in Tsim Sha Tsui. A Thai visitor who tested positive last week had also been there.
There were more unidentified infections in the community after social distancing rules were relaxed last month, said Benjamin Cowling, a professor of public health at the University of Hong Kong.
“There’s opportunity for infection to spread, and sooner or later the virus will take one of those opportunities,” Cowling said. “So I think fairly soon we are going to see some outbreaks and maybe that’s going to develop into our fourth wave. By mid-to-late October it will be clear.”
Meanwhile, health officials said they were considering whether to prosecute a Thai housewife, 27, for reportedly giving incorrect information on how she contracted Covid-19 and misleading them about the whereabouts of her infected friend.
The woman told authorities she thought she had caught the virus from a 35-year-old friend who she went shopping with in Tsim Sha Tsui, but that the friend had returned to Thailand and tested positive there.
However, the friend in question never left Hong Kong, and was staying in Tsim Sha Tsui with four other Thais. She and one of her flat mates tested positive on Sunday and Monday.
The Center for Health Protection said it had asked for help from the Thai Consulate in Hong Kong to find asymptomatic patients in the city.