An Omicron outbreak was identified at the Moon Palace restaurant in Kowloon Tong. Photo: Facebook, Moon Palace

Hong Kong’s long-awaited resumption of quarantine-free travel, or the so-called “border reopening,” with the mainland is no closer as the special administrative region has been hit by the Omicron variant.

A cluster of six infected people was discovered at a restaurant at the Festival Walk mall in Kowloon Tong in the past few days, resulting in 340 people being sent to a quarantine camp.

Lawmakers blamed the government for not having strengthened the quarantine requirements for flight crew before this latest outbreak. 

Representatives from the catering sector expressed their concern after health officials said the Hong Kong government would tighten its anti-epidemic rules and allow only vaccinated people to enter restaurants. They said their revenue would drop by 20% to 30% under the new rules.

The Hong Kong government has imposed some of the world’s toughest quarantine and social-distancing rules since early last year in an effort to convince Beijing to allow an early “border reopening.” Initially, the aim was to allow about 1,000 people per day to travel across the Hong Kong-mainland border without quarantine.

Since July 2020, Guangdong has allowed quarantine-free travel at its border with Macau.

Originally, the Hong Kong-mainland border should have been “reopened” in late December, but it was delayed due to virus outbreaks at a Hong Kong restaurant.

On December 27, a Cathay Pacific aircrew worker, who was exempted from Hong Kong’s 21-day quarantine requirements, visited the Moon Palace restaurant at the Festival Walk mall with his father after returning from the United States. He later tested positive for the Omicron strain.

The man’s father, together with a construction worker who had been sitting about 10 meters away, were later found to be infected. As of Monday, a total of six people have been found to be infected in this outbreak.

The Centre for Health Protection said about 340 people had been sent to the Penny’s Bay Quarantine Centre, where they will stay for at least 21 days. Up to 22 staff from the Moon Palace restaurant said in a post on social media that it was unfair that they and their families had to be isolated for three weeks, while Cathay Pacific did not require its aircrew staff to stay at home after arrival.

On Saturday, Cathay Pacific said it was deeply disappointed by the fact that two of its five aircrew workers, who had recently been infected with the Omicron variant, violated the company’s isolation guidelines. It said the duo had been sacked.

Michael Tien, a Roundtable lawmaker, said both Cathay Pacific and the government should be blamed for the Omicron outbreak at the Moon Palace restaurant as it was risky for newly-arrived aircrew staff to be able to walk freely on the streets.

Tien said it was unlikely that the Shenzhen government would give the green light to the proposed “border reopening” with Hong Kong in the short term as it had warned about the potential risk of having incoming aircrew staff exempted from quarantine.

Travelers will soon be able to use an E-card on a WeChat app to cross the border between the mainland China and Hong Kong. Photo:
The border between mainland China and Hong Kong. Photo:

Tam Yiu-chung, the sole Hong Kong representative in the standing committee of the National People’s Congress, said it was hard to say when the “border reopening” would kick off as Beijing was worried about Hong Kong’s epidemic situation amid the rise of the highly-infectious strain.

Tam said the central government also needed more time to handle the recent virus outbreaks in Xi’an in Shaanxi province.  

Tam said if Hong Kong people wanted to visit their relatives on the mainland during the Chinese New Year in early February, they would have to depart Hong Kong this week to fulfill the mainland’s quarantine requirements.

As of Saturday, more than 1,500 cases had been reported in Xi’an since December 9. The city was locked down on December 24 with some of the 13 million residents facing a shortage of food and necessities, media reported.

On Sunday, the United Kingdom recorded 134,943 Covid cases, while the United States had 286,621 cases. France reported 58,432 cases, while Germany had 12,636 cases. As of last Friday, the UK has had about 250,000 Omicron cases.

Hong Kong has so far recorded 95 Omicron cases, most identified at the airport, quarantine hotels or quarantine camps.

Sophia Chan Siu-chee, the Secretary for Food and Health, said Hong Kong was at the “tipping point” of Covid-19 community outbreaks. Chan said the government would extend the “vaccine bubble” to all restaurants and regulated premises such as cinemas to allow only citizens who have received at least one jab to enter.

She said the new rules would take effect from January 22.

“It will have a big impact. If the policy is really launched, business will drop by at least 20% to 30%, because for many reunion dinners or festive meals, the whole family will dine together,” Chui Man-wai from the Institute of Dining Professionals said on a radio program on Monday.

“The chain reaction will be huge. For instance, in a family of six people … if one elderly relative hasn’t taken the jab, the other five might not dine out anymore,” Chui said.

People who plan to book tables for next month’s Lunar New Year holiday were holding off to see if social distancing rules would change in case there’s a new wave of outbreaks, he added.

“Venues considered of high risk to spread the virus will be added to the scheduled premises according to the needs,” Sophia Chan said, adding that nursing homes or parks could be next.

At present, people are already required to present vaccination certificates to enter nightclubs, bars and karaoke parlors.

On Monday, reported that the Education Bureau had recently sought opinions from educators about whether there was a need to suspend classes. The bureau told the media that it would maintain the current arrangement, but closely monitor the epidemic situation in Hong Kong.

Read: China locks down 13 million for an outbreak in the hundreds