Shek O, one of the most popular beaches at the far east end of Hong Kong Island, appears to be unusually quiet at the end of the 2020 summer season. Parking spaces are readily available, there are no queues for the minibus, and the picturesque shore-front alleyways are quiet. Only a few couples in wedding gowns can be seen scouting out romantic spots for their photo shoot.

Empty Shek O. Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

In front of Shek O’s most scenic restaurant, however, sits a row of bright yellow plastic barriers reaching over six feet in height. The unsightly installations are a heavy-duty government measure intended to prevent trespassers entering the beach whilst the city’s Covid-19 social distancing rules remain in place.

Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

“I have no idea why beaches haven’t reopened,” JP, who owned Cococabana the beachfront Mediterranean restaurant, told HKFP. He declined to give his full name. “It’s ridiculous.”

Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

To stem the spread of the coronavirus, the Hong Kong government closed public leisure and sport venues in late July – the peak of the summer season. This included all gazetted beaches.

Stricter social distancing measures were later imposed when Hong Kong saw a new wave of infections, recording up to 100 new cases a day.

Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

Though daily locally-transmitted infections have dropped to a handful a day, a four-person limit on gatherings remains in place. Various team sport venues reopened in mid September, including soccer pitches, baseball courts, indoor basketball and volleyball courts as well as swimming pools. Beaches – however – remain shut, despite hoards of people filling shopping malls, trains and hiking trails.

Economic hit

JP said business halved this past year. It went from bad to worse, “mostly since beaches closed.” Though government Employment Support Scheme subsidies were timely assistance, which allowed the restaurant to keep its usual headcount.

To cope with the lack of tourists and beach-goers, JP’s restaurant extended business hours to offer breakfast service. Delivery apps on the market do not cover Shek O. “What can I do,” he said. “I’m getting used to a new Hong Kong, like everybody else.”

Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

“I’ve never seen something like this in my 50, 60 years of running this business,” Mr. Fong told HKFP. He owns – and lives behind – Fong Fong BBQ Store, a beach supplies shop located behind the beach office. “There is not one soul around. I didn’t hire any help this year,” he said, adding that he is having to live on his savings.

Like Fong’s store, most businesses along the Shek O waterfront are family-owned properties, and so do not need to worry about rent. At least half a dozen stores that sell barbecue and beach supplies were shuttered when HKFP visited last Friday.

Ming’s Cafe. Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

“Sometimes we have hikers taking a break here, or people who didn’t know the beaches are closed,” said Mr. Wong, who manages Ming’s Cafe at the Shek O roundabout. “We are at about 30 per cent of our usual business, and hired three staff instead of six to help out.”

Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

Closed till 2021?

As government lifeguard service typically closes during winter from November till March, JP and Mr. Wong believe that beaches might not reopen until at least April next year, although they did not receive news from the government.

Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

Stanley and Shek O District Councillor Michael Pang Cheuk Kei just finished distributing flyers about flu vaccination in the neighbourhood when he spoke with HKFP. Pang said he has pressed Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) officials about beach reopening dates, but to no avail.

Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

“It would be harder for the government to limit the amount of people entering the beach and to enforce social distancing measures, as opposed to other sports venues,” he said, speculating on the possible reason beaches remained closed, even though indoor leisure venues are open.

Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

Pang said he believed that the government was weary of public pressure, and so he was planning to coordinate action with other beach district representatives, such as those at Tuen Mun’s Gold Coast. “People flocked to the beaches at the beginning of the epidemic. Now the weather is fine, people were supposed to enjoy the beaches – yet they are not able to,” he said.

Lazing about. Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

A spokesperson for the LCSD said that the epidemic situation has yet to stabilise and silent transmission remains in the community: “Due to the open environment of the bathing beaches, it is difficult to enforce the epidemic prevention and social distancing measures… Opening the beaches now is likely to attract large crowd of beach goers resulting in overcrowded beaches and overloaded changing rooms and toilet facilities.”

Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

“Added to these is that beach goers tend not to wear masks while sun bathing and after having a swim. To minimise the risk of the epidemic’s spread, it is prudent not to open the beaches at this stage,” the spokesperson said, adding that patrols have been stepped up to prevent gatherings.

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Selina Cheng

Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.