Bars and karaoke lounges in Hong Kong will be allowed to open gradually while restaurants will be given the option of easing dine-in restrictions to allow up to eight people per table from Thursday, city officials have announced.

The degree of relaxation of social distancing measures will vary depending on the restaurant involved, whether and how many doses of vaccinations staff and customers have received, and whether the premises requires its customers to use the government’s controversial tracing app, LeaveHomeSafe.

Some chairs are taken out to enforce social distancing measure as seen in a cafe during the coronavirus pandemic in Hong Kong on April 7, 2020. The earlier ban on gathering of more than four people at public venues such as restaurants has been extended until April 23. Photo: May James/HKFP.

The Secretary for Food and Health, Sophia Chan, said the so-called “vaccine bubbles” will divide restaurants into four category levels. Restaurants which do not participate in the vaccination bubble will only be allowed to operate with up to two people per table until 6pm, while those which require staff members to be tested every 14 days and customers to use the LeaveHomeSafe app will be allowed up to four people per table and operate until 10pm.

Businesses in which all staff have received one dose and whose customers use the LeaveHomeSafe app will be allowed to operate until midnight, with six people per table.

Restaurants in which all members of staff and customers have been fully vaccinated will be allowed to operate until 2am, with up to eight people per table, at 75 per cent of their full capacity. Businesses in the latter two categories will be allowed to designate “clean areas” within their premises for the further relaxations.

People are considered fully vaccinated 14 days after their second dose.

A general view shows a totally empty street in the usually busy drinking area of Lan Kwai Fong, in Hong Kong on April 5, 2020, after the city’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam ordered for the city’s bars to temporarily close as part of measures to help stop the spread of the COVID-19 caused by the novel coronavirus. Photo: May James/HKFP.

Meanwhile, bars and clubs which can ensure all their staff and visitors have received at least one vaccine dose will be allowed up to two people per table while karaoke lounges and party rooms will be allowed up to four people per room. All may operate until 2 am, at 50 per cent capacity.

Only children under the age 15 accompanied by an adult and elders over the age of 65 will be exempted from using the LeaveHomeSafe app under the new arrangements.

The secretary said the new relaxations on the basis of vaccinations meant businesses could gradually resume operations, while managing the potential risk of a further outbreak.

“Any relaxation has its own risks… we believe the vaccination bubble forms the basis of any relaxation, ” Chan said. “For high risk activities, if all individuals have received one dose of vaccine or completed the course, risk of infection would be much lower.”

“The relaxation will also provide an incentive for vaccination… something we will like to see,” she added.

The limit of four-person public gatherings, however, remains. Chan said there was a need to strike a balance to provide safe and gradual easing of social distancing measures.

File photo: Tim Reckmann, via Flickr.

Staff members of the premises who genuinely cannot receive a vaccination due to health reasons will be required to provide a medical certificate and be tested for the virus every seven days. Those who provide false or inaccurate information will be held criminally liable and could face a fine of HK$5,000.

When asked whether the new regulations may cause restaurant workers who are ineligible for a vaccine to lose their jobs, health officials said Thursday’s new measures are an initial-stage opening position.

“The last thing we want to see is people firing their employees,” Permanent Secretary for Food and Health, Vivian Lau, said, referring to the alternative arrangements for staff members who could not be vaccinated.

The new measures will be enforced from Thursday for two weeks.

Vaccination verification app

Both businesses and customers who want to participate in the vaccination bubble will be required to use a new government app to verify whether and how many vaccine doses a customer has received, Lau also announced on Tuesday.

“If restaurants want to verify a customer’s vaccination record, the customer will provide QR code to the restaurant,” Lau said. The customer’s QR code will reveal three different colours to indicate the three degrees of vaccination: not vaccinated, one dose, or fully vaccinated.

Photo: Kaiser/HKFP.

Lau said there was currently no way to prevent people from using another person’s QR code to enter a premises but urged the public not to do so.

The new app is expected to be ready by Thursday in time for the vaccination bubble roll-out.

Hong Kong reported eight new infections on Tuesday, five of which were imported.

Chan said the government must work on preventing importation of cases involving mutant virus strains, as the global pandemic situation remains severe. In the past two weeks, only 35 of the 146 new infections were locally transmitted.

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Hong Kong Free Press is a new, non-profit, English-language news source seeking to unite critical voices on local and national affairs. Free of charge and completely independent, HKFP arrives amid rising concerns over declining press freedom in Hong Kong and during an important time in the city’s constitutional development.