As the coronavirus began to wreak havoc around the world in mid-March, returning travellers and students caused a spike of cases in Hong Kong. With a record 65 new cases announced on March 27, this “second wave” was far more serious than February’s initial outbreak imported from mainland China.

In response, the Hong Kong government enacted emergency measures to contain the community outbreak. From March 28 onwards, restaurants were ordered to keep tables at least 1.5 metres apart. The next day, public gatherings of more than four people were banned. And on April 1, karaokes and nightclubs were closed. In the days that followed, bars and beauty parlours were also closed.

carrie lam virus mask coronavirus
Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

However, arriving on the back of a nine-month protest movement and rampant cries of police brutality, the authorities stand accused of selectively enforcing the measures. Pro-protest businesses say they are repeatedly targeted, while officials have allegedly turned a blind eye to breaches by pro-government figures.

Are Hong Kong’s social distancing measures being used as an excuse to crack down on the ongoing protest movement? HKFP rounds up key incidents that have caused Hongkongers to question whether enforcement has become politicised.

Restaurant raids

As Singapore announced on March 20 that restaurants must ensure a distance of at least 1 metre between diners, Hong Kong rolled out similar regulations a week later under Cap. 599F.

But regulation 12 also empowers government officers to enter any premises subject to the social distancing measures, conduct examinations, and demand any person for identification. As online commentator Ah Chit wrote, the devil was in the detail.

social distancing restaurant
Photo: KH:)/United Social Press.

Soon, high-profile pro-protest “yellow restaurants” complained of being harassed. On March 29, Tsim Sha Tsui’s Kwong Wing Catering wrote that police entered the restaurant twice within 15 minutes, claiming they received reports that tables were less than 1.5 metres apart. Officers took the ID numbers of all staff.

Two days later, police raided Central’s Cafe Seasons, owned by the son of pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai, during lunch hours. Officers demanded the IDs of diners, claiming they suspected some of them were meant to be in mandatory quarantine. The incident was later confirmed by a police spokesperson.

Police at Ki Lung Tea Restaurant.
Police at Ki Lung Tea Restaurant.

More recently, dozens of police entered Prince Edward’s Ki Lung Tea Restaurant two evenings in a row on April 11 and 12. Staff said officers barked orders rudely, demanding the kitchen stoves be turned off, checking its alcohol license, and falsely claiming it was an offence not to install panels to sub-divide tables.

None of these three high-profile incidents, however, have resulted in any charges so far.

Public gatherings

Cap. 599G stipulates a ban on public gatherings of more than four people. Regulation 8 allows the police to “ticket” offenders with a HK$2,000 fine rather than arrest them.

The measures have not completely stymied Hong Kong’s ongoing protests. On April 8, the League of Social Democrats marched in separate groups of four urging support for laid-off workers. Earlier, on March 31, protesters queued – rather than clustering – outside Prince Edward MTR Station to lay flowers following unfounded rumours that officers had killed people on the platform during last year’s “8.31 Incident.”

Nevertheless, police began to encircle and search people in the vicinity later in the evening, resulting in 54 arrests. Democratic Party activist Poming Chan wrote that, after conducting a mass search of bystanders, police ordered the strangers to stand in groups of five. They were then filmed as “evidence” of violating the four-person rule, but were released.

March 31 protests. Photo: Joshua Kwan / USP.

To date, no protesters are known to have been ticketed for violating the ban on public gatherings. Police issued their first tickets on April 5, against men playing and watching Chinese chess outside a public housing estate.

Aside from its effect on protests, questions have arisen over how the ban on gatherings – and its exceptions – should be interpreted. On March 30, police ordered people waiting for their takeaway food outside Hung Hom’s popular pro-democracy Lung Mun Cafe to disperse, claiming the queue amounted to a “gathering”.

Tanya Chan
Tanya Chan. File Photo:

Pursuant to paragraph 1 of schedule 1, the ban explicitly does not apply to the exercise of government functions. However, the pro-Beijing camp has loudly criticised pro-democracy legislator Tanya Chan for holding a meeting with 40 industry representatives on April 2 at a Sham Shui Po bar – after the Legislative Council Complex closed its doors in the evening, citing the pandemic.

Last week, Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan told the legislature the police would investigate her.

Exemptions & double standards?

Critics of Hong Kong’s social distancing measures have drawn attention not only as to how they are enforced, but also to the occasions when they are not.

As the pro-Beijing camp escalated their criticism of Tanya Chan, Chief Executive Carrie Lam posted a photo of herself watching seminal songwriter Sam Hui’s live-streamed concert on Easter Sunday, alongside her ministers. When challenged by netizens, she said her cabinet watched the performance while at a work meeting – thus she was exercising a governmental function and exempted from the ban on gatherings.

While up to 20 people are allowed to gather to attend weddings pursuant to paragraph 10 of schedule 1, Apple Daily reported that indigenous villagers in Fanling held a banquet with over 100 guests on March 29.

Racehorse owners were also allowed to attend the Jockey Club races of April 1, 5 and 8.

Hong Kong’s Director of Food and Environmental Hygiene Vivian Lau told Commercial Radio on April 12 that 12 restaurants had been prosecuted as of that date. No pro-protest businesses have declared that they have been charged.

restaurant suspended business
File photo: Rachel Wong/HKFP.

Although the government has not directly responded to accusations of selectively enforcing coronavirus containment measures, it has warned – amid prospects of a deep economic recession – that businesses convicted of breaching the regulations may not receive aid packages.

“We are providing the second round of financial assistance [to businesses] to minimise the effects of our social distancing measures upon them,” said Lau.

“If they are found violating these same measures, we need to process their applications with caution. We don’t rule out the possibility that we will not provide funding to them.”

Elson Tong

Elson Tong

Elson Tong is a graduate of international relations and former investigations consultant. He has also written for Stand News.