People spent their time in shopping malls during weekends. Photo: Asia Times

Medical experts have urged the Hong Kong government to cap the number of people in shopping malls, country parks and wet markets to curb virus transmissions in public areas.

The government should step up enforcement of social distancing rules at places where people often gather, Leung Chi-chiu, chairman of the Medical Association’s advisory committee on communicable diseases, said Monday. It should encourage the business sector to put in place crowd control measures at shopping malls during holidays.

It was not a good idea to cut the opening hours of shopping malls because more people would gather and shop at the same time, he said. Visitors at popular sites in the countryside should be capped because asymptomatic patients could spread the virus.

If the number of local infections did not decline after the Chinese New Year holidays in mid-February, the government should consider further tightening its rules to require people to put on masks in country parks, Leung said.

The rules say people who are doing outdoor strenuous exercise can be exempted from the mandatory masks. Officials have elaborated that hikers in country parks and joggers in open areas can take off masks. However, people who are only stretching should wear masks.

In recent weeks, people have continued to go shopping and hiking at weekends although the government has banned gatherings of more than two people. Customers have queued for takeaways or seats outside some popular restaurants. During weekdays, buses and trains are still crowded by workers who are not allowed to work from home.

Many Hong Kong people go out to meet friends during the weekends. Photo: Asia Times

Ho Pak-leung, a microbiologist of the University of Hong Kong, said it was unlikely new infections will drop to zero before Chinese New Year because the coronavirus situation in Hong Kong will fluctuate for some time.

Ho said he agreed with the government’s move to cancel the Chinese New Year fairs. However, he suggested that the flow of people in flower and wet markets should be controlled and monitored.

Last Friday, the government said it had decided to call off the Lunar New Year fairs planned across the city next month.

A spokesman for the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department said the fairs at 15 locations would have attracted large crowds.

“In order to protect the health of the vendors and citizens, and to reduce the risk of virus transmission as much as possible, the government decided to cancel the Lunar New Year Fairs,” the government said, adding that those who had paid for stalls would be given full refunds.

Yeung Siu-lung, the owner of Hong Kong’s biggest orchid farm, said he had grown more than 30,000 orchids to be sold at the fairs and is estimating a loss of around HK$3 million (US$386,892). He demanded a subsidy from the government. 

The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, which won bids for three stalls at Victoria Park, said the cancellation means it could lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations – accounting for about 20% of its yearly income.

The Center for Health Protection said 41 cases, three imported and 38 local infections, were recorded on Sunday. Eleven local cases had no known source.

One of the new cases was an ambulanceman who works at Tsing Yi Ambulance Depot, and was the second case at the facility. Another ambulanceman also tested preliminarily positive. About 40 people who work at the site are to be put under quarantine.

At Princess Margaret Hospital, two more patient assistants tested preliminarily positive after one case was reported at its occupational therapy department last week. The assistants were responsible for making pressure garments for patients and had used the same sewing machine. They also had meals in the same room.

A shopkeeper at Sin Tat Plaza, a mall known for the trading of smartphones in Mong Kok, was found to be infected. Two colleagues are among the 40 people who tested positive preliminarily on Monday.

Over the weekend, the Labour Department conducted joint operations in collaboration with other departments to promote anti-epidemic rules in popular gathering places of foreign domestic workers. These places include Tamar Park in Admiralty, Victoria Park in Causeway Bay, footbridge near Fa Yuen Street in Mong Kok, and places at Central, Sha Tin and Ma On Shan.

Officers distributed multiple-language promotional leaflets to appeal to domestic workers to maintain environmental hygiene and refrain from conducting unlicensed hawking, including cooked food or other hawking activities. Also, the police increased manpower to step up patrols at those places, according to a statement on the government’s website. However, the government did not say whether it had fined anyone during the operations.

A domestic worker called Makhi told a newspaper that she only gathered with friends once a month and had always kept a social distance. She said she felt it was unfair that domestic workers were accused of meeting friends while many Hong Kong people could go out freely during the Christmas and New Year holidays. 

Another helper said it was difficult for her to meet her friends as her rest days had been rearranged by her employer. She said it was unfair that her employer could have gatherings with friends and relatives but she was accused of going out on her rest days.

Government officers deliver leaflets to domestic workers in Mong Kok. Photo: HK Govt

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