The Covid-19 social distancing measure limiting the size of public gatherings to two people is “disproportionate” to the severity of the virus, the Democratic Party spokesperson has said, describing officials who devised the rule as being out of touch.

Representatives of business sectors affected by the tougher measures, meanwhile, said the restrictions would deal another blow to small business owners, who continued to see revenues dwindling under the ongoing pandemic.

Chairperson of the Democratic Party Lo Kin-hei. File Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Democratic Party spokesperson Lo Kin-hei said the ban on family gatherings would be impossible to enforce, rendering the measure “ineffective” in combatting the virus.

“It is hard to imagine the world top officials and Executive Council members live in. They are not affected by worldly concerns,” Lo said in a statement on Tuesday. The rule will be “very disruptive and ineffective,” he added.

Lo also criticised the two-person limit on public gatherings, saying it was disproportionate to the severity of the virus, and questioned whether there was any scientific basis to the reduced gathering size.

Hairdressing industry ‘dumbfounded’

Hong Kong Hair & Beauty Merchants Association representative Kong Shu-lam said the order for hairdressers to close from Thursday until February 24 was “sudden” and had left the industry “dumbfounded.”

“[We] didn’t think even hairdressers would have to halt business,” as only a small number of transmissions took place at specific salons during the early days of the pandemic, Kong said.

Monalisa Hair Salon, Yau Ma Tei.

While agreeing that the government needed to impose measures to stem the spread of the highly transmissible but less severe Omicron variant, Kong said during an RTHK radio programme on Wednesday that the venues were not a hotbed for the virus, and only a small number of cases had been linked to salons during the earlier Covid-19 waves.

While a new round of anti-epidemic fund would offer subsidies to business owners struggling during Covid-19, Kong said he hoped the government would offer similar assistance to employees.

“The workers live hand to mouth. Most hairdressers are paid on commission. With no clients, their income will be close to zero. Some will have a base salary, but only a minority,” he said.

Deserted markets

Speaking on an RTHK show on Wednesday morning, Chan Kam-wing, the president of the Federation of Hong Kong Kowloon New Territories Hawker Associations, said that requiring all government wet market visitors to be vaccinated would prevent elderly customers – their primary clientele – from entering.

A stall vendor grabs change for a customer at Smithfield wet market in Kennedy Town. File Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP

The vaccine mandate, which is slated to kick off on February 24, would further hurt hawkers, Chan said. Vendors have been struggling with fewer patrons since the government started requiring all wet market visitors to sign in using the LeaveHomeSafe contact-tracing app in November.

“People would prefer shopping from stores just outside the markets instead of entering,” Chan said, adding that business at stores outside of wet markets was “exploding,” while some inside were not even opening because of fewer customers.

While evening dine-in bans have led more people to shop for groceries, younger people tended to shop at supermarkets, leaving wet markets with senior customers, most of whom were unvaccinated and would be barred from entry under the mandate, according to Chan.

File Photo: GovHK.

Government wet markets may see another 20 per cent to 30 per cent fewer visitors after the vaccine pass is introduced, on top of a 30 per cent to 40 per cent drop since the app became made mandatory for entry, Chan estimated.

A question of survival

The Society for Community Organization (SoCO), which supports low-income communities in Hong Kong, said in a statement that it welcomes government subsidies for the unemployed, but hoped there would be proportional assistance given to those who are underemployed.

But the group said it opposed imposing a blanket vaccine mandate. Many public hospital patients – especially the elderly, the disabled or those with long-term illnesses – are unable to get an appointment in time to see specialists for a vaccine recommendation or exemption note due to the lengthy wait, SoCO said. Scheduling an appointment with public hospital specialists could take months.

Government implementing lockdowns and compulsory testing in Sha Tin. File Photo: GovHK.

“[They] may not be able to see their usual specialists in time, while general practitioners [usually] avoid making recommendations, so they can’t get their jabs in time,” a spokesperson said.

Meanwhile the group said barring vulnerable groups from purchasing food or using basic services for being unvaccinated will “affect their survival, mental health and care.” The government should instead allow replacing vaccines with coronavirus tests or exemption notes from doctors, and should allow a longer grace period for vulnerable groups to comply with the mandate.

Hong Kong has recorded a total of 16,647 Covid-19 cases since the start of the pandemic and 213 deaths.

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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.