How a Hong Kong bar street popular with foreigners became a coronavirus cautionary tale

Closing time.
Closing time.
Image: Reuters/Tyrone Siu
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Thumping music, steep streets, and steeply priced drinks are the hallmarks of Lan Kwai Fong, Hong Kong’s famous party district popular with many of the city’s foreign residents. But the nightlife area has come under scrutiny in recent days as it emerged that at least five new Covid-19 patients had earlier been out drinking there.

While local health authorities have not determined the party spot as the source of the cluster, experts have warned that the packed bars and restaurants there present a high-risk scenario ripe for a community outbreak of cases. At a media briefing on the local outbreak situation last Friday, two leading epidemiologists specifically called out Lan Kwai Fong, showing a photo of a street packed full of bar-goers a week earlier. While the location of the photo was technically the adjacent SoHo district, another nightlife hotspot, the point was clear: People weren’t taking social distancing seriously enough, putting the entire city at risk.

Perhaps in response to those fears, the government today announced a ban on alcohol sales at eateries, effectively shutting down the bar hub, alongside a stricter travel ban that bars all foreign travelers from entering the territory, including those from mainland China, Macau, and Taiwan if they’ve been to a foreign country in the past 14 days. Chief executive Carrie Lam explained the decision was made because “people get intimate when they get drunk.”

Hong Kong currently has 317 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus. Cases have spiked over the past two weeks as overseas residents rushed back to the city, spurred by worsening situations in countries like the US and UK, as well as a 14-day mandatory quarantine requirement for all Hong Kong arrivals from overseas that took effect last Thursday (Mar. 19). The uptick in cases means the city is facing the “highest risk” of a sustained outbreak since the epidemic took hold in late January, University of Hong Kong experts said.

As an indication of how public perceptions of Lan Kwai Fong and SoHo have quickly shifted as Hong Kong faces a second wave of Covid-19 cases, the two districts made the front pages of three different local broadsheets in the span of four days last week. The coverage featured photos of the two areas’ mostly white and non-mask wearing patrons, and cast the party spot as a dangerous, vice-fueled den brimming with potential carriers of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. One newspaper ran the headline “Fall of the demon realm.” Another targeted “Westerners” for refusing to wear masks, suggesting their behavior makes it harder to prevent community outbreaks.

Business in Lan Kwai Fong was already hard hit by last year’s protests, and the coronavirus outbreak now threatens to deal the district a fatal blow. Perhaps because of the precarious business situation, Lan Kwai Fong Group, the largest landlord in the party area, has resisted calls for bars and restaurants to be shut to curb the pandemic.

“It’s early days,” Allan Zeman, the chairman of the group, told Quartz before the ban on alcohol sales was announced. “Let’s not panic because even if you close the restaurants and bars, people still take the MTR [subway], people still go places… That’s a very drastic measure and I don’t think it should be taken unless the numbers start spiking.” But if authorities were to order shut-downs, Zeman said, he would cooperate as long as the government provides substantial financial support.