Restaurants and bars at Lan Kwai Fong in Hong Kong, south China (Xinhua/Li Gang)

Hong Kong’s catering sector struggling amid COVID-19 pandemic

Hong Kong’s catering sector which has not recovered from the aftermath of social unrest last year is facing a second blow from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hong Zhou Restaurant is struggling to keep afloat. Wu Ruikang, the owner of the Chinese food restaurant serving Jiang-Zhe cuisine in Wan Chai, said the restaurant saw its income plunge 80 percent from normal times and even met difficulties in paying employees. “The COVID-19 epidemic has greatly impacted our business,” Wu said.

With its turnover shrinking to 10-20 percent, Budaoweng Hotpot Cuisine, a high-end Chinese and Japanese-style hotpot brand, has closed its branches in Times Square and iSQUARE shopping centers and only left the one in Jordan open.

In the face of the further spread of the COVID-19, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) government has urged residents to avoid group gatherings and dining. Restaurants, bars and cafes, which used to be packed with people, have started to see much fewer customers at dining hours, with many suspending operation.

A bar in Wan Chai (Xinhua/Li Gang)

Combined incomes of the catering sector fell 40 percent in the first three months, with Cantonese restaurants and wedding banquet venues as the hardest hit, said Wong Kah-woh, president of the Hong Kong Federation of Restaurants & Related Trades.

The rapidly-spreading pandemic overseas has compounded the situation in Hong Kong where COVID-19 cases surged from less than 140 to nearly 600 over the past two weeks, with a large proportion of local infections related to parties and dining out.

In Lan Kwai Fong nightlife area, where most of restaurants and bars have shuttered due to the COVID-19 epidemic, a large poster has been put on the wall to remind people to wear face masks, keep hands clean, take temperatures, and reduce physical contact.

Shortly after the Center for Health Protection reported the biggest daily jump of new confirmed cases since the COVID-19 outbreak on Friday, the HKSAR government moved to toughen up social distancing measures. Among others, restrictions were imposed on dine-in services of restaurants, including closing half of all the seats and measuring temperatures of diners, effective for 14 days since Saturday evening.

Given the faster spread of the COVID-19, the new measures were considered necessary by health experts to prevent  contagion in the community but still stoked concerns from the catering sector as some restaurant owners expect even further revenue slumps.

Hong Zhou Restaurant has already shortened work time of its employees, and the owner Wu said he was deeply worried about their livelihood.

People are seen wearing masks in Hong Kong. (Xinhua/Wang Shen)

As the hardest-hit sector by the epidemic, the catering sector’s jobless rate spiked to 7.5 percent during December to February, much higher than the average of 3.7 percent of the entire economy. Altogether more than 200,000 restaurants across Hong Kong provide over 300,000 jobs.

Tommy Cheung Yu-yan, an HKSAR lawmaker representing the catering sector, urged the government to offer more support for restaurants, such as the rent relief and exemption of rates, a type of taxes levied on properties.

HKSAR Chief Executive Carrie Lam has said the government will roll out more schemes to subsidize those affected by the social distancing measures and also promised there will be a second round of relief measures under its anti-epidemic fund for businesses and residents.

To prop the epidemic-hit economy and save jobs, the HKSAR government has carried out 24 relief measures under its 30-billion-Hong Kong-dollar (about US$3.87 billion) anti-epidemic fund, which is expected to benefit over 110,000 businesses, 200,000 families and 1.47 million people.

Under existing measures, owners of restaurants and factory canteens will receive an one-off subsidy of 200,000 Hong Kong dollars, and owners of light refreshment restaurants, fresh provision shops, food factories and bakeries will receive 80,000 dollars.

Weighed down by social unrest, combined incomes of Hong Kong’s catering sector fell 5.9 percent year on year to 112.5 billion Hong Kong dollars in 2019, the first annual decline since 2003.■