Hong Kong’s ban on dine-in services after 6 p.m. is estimated to have had next to no effect on slowing the transmission of Covid-19 during the third and fourth waves of the pandemic while other social distancing measures were in place, a University of Hong Kong study has found.

A closed restaurant on Lamma Island. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

The study looked at changes in the virus’ rate of transmission during Hong Kong’s third and fourth waves when various social distancing measures and the dine-in ban were implemented. The study was conducted by epidemiologists and infectious disease experts at the University of Hong Kong School of Public Health and Faculty of Medicine.

The findings were published in a research letter on February 7, which appeared in the March edition of the Emerging Infectious Diseases journal.

The study looked at the daily number of Covid-19 cases when six types of measures imposed by the government during the third wave, between June and September 2020, and the fourth wave, between November 2020 and March last year. The measures included the 6 p.m. dine-in ban, restrictions on headcounts in restaurants, limits on group gatherings, the closure of bars, work-from-home arrangements for civil servants, and a ban on live performances and dancing activities.

A) Incidence and implementation of [public health and social measures] during wave 3, June 15–September 30, 2020. B) Incidence and implementation of PHSMs during wave 4, November 1, 2020–March 20, 2021. Photo: HKU.

Because five of these measures were implemented at the same time as the dine-in ban and lasted for longer, the researchers were able to isolate the effect of shorter dining service hours on the coronavirus’ transmission – which is represented by a reproduction number known as Rt – from that of other measures.

“We estimated that the ban on dine-in services after 6:00 p.m. did not reduce Rt in both waves, but other [public health and social measures] were associated with substantial reductions in Rt,” they wrote.

File photo.

The combined effect of the measures excluding the dine-in ban reduced Covid-19 transmission anywhere between 29 to 47 per cent during the third or the fourth wave, with a 95 per cent confidence interval, the study found.

“Our analysis suggested that the [public health and social measures] were critical for suppressing the third and fourth waves of COVID-19 in Hong Kong. However, we found that a ban on dine-in hours after 6:00 p.m. might not have had an effect in both waves when [restaurant] capacity was already reduced,” they added.

Epidemiologist Ben Cowling, one of the study’s co-authors, said the findings indicated that the dine-in ban “should be examined more closely” for its impact on society in general. The government should also revisit existing measures and put in place timelines for implementing other measures that are more sustainable in the long term, he said. Chief Executive Carrie Lam recently indicated that reducing deaths is a higher priority for the government than bringing cases back to zero.

‘Not cost-effective’

However, the researchers acknowledged that the analysis could not deduce if the dine-in ban would have an effect if it was implemented independently before other measures. The study was also not able to separate the effect of the remaining measures from each other. The change in transmission may also be the result of changes in individuals’ behaviour while social distancing measures were in place, which slowed the spread of the disease, it said.

Tommy Cheung, a lawmaker for the catering industry, told HKFP he believes the study’s findings were correct. “Restaurants have done everything the government asked in the past two years,” Cheung said. “[I] hope Hong Kong government officials would seriously consider these experts’ advice… [I] suggest reopening restaurant dine-in until 10 p.m.”

Chair of the Institute of Dining Professionals, Simon Wong, said even if the dine-in ban’s effect wasn’t zero, it was “certainly not a cost-effective measure.”

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“Any measure should be weighed against effectiveness and its impact to society and industries, which make up the society’s overall cost,” he told HKFP. The study’s results should be taken as “important indicators” when the government considers its measures in the future, said Wong, the owner of several hotpot and barbecue restaurant chains which partially suspended operations due to the ban.

Hong Kong’s evening dine-in ban was reintroduced in January amid a fifth wave of infections, along with a raft of other social distancing measures. A representative of the restaurant industry said in February that the sector could see up to 15 per cent unemployment as some 1,200 restaurants had suspended operations temporarily since the ban’s reintroduction.

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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.