Header image: Bobby’s Rabble

Hong Kong bars and pubs will be forced to shut for two weeks, starting from 6pm tonight (Friday, 3 April 2020) – the latest in the Hong Kong government’s increasingly drastic social-distancing regulations to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Announced last night, this regulation will apply to all premises that are “exclusively or mainly used for the sale or supply of intoxicating liquors… for consumption in that premises”, including parts of catering business premises and clubhouses that may be used for such purposes. Failure to adhere to this new regulation risks incurring a maximum fine of HK$50,000 and imprisonment for up to six months.

Estimates suggest that around 1,200 businesses, as well as some 2,000 or so bartenders in Hong Kong, will be affected by this latest regulation, but these figures do not appear to include the many other supporting staff and businesses that are part of Hong Kong’s nightlife ecosystem. Speaking to the press last night, Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan said that measures like this are necessary as such premises are “high-risk areas”, and she did not rule out taking even further action if the situation continues to worsen.

The Hong Kong bar industry has already been scrambling to cope with the various regulations in recent weeks, but this latest directive poses the most significant challenge yet to Hong Kong’s much-loved watering holes. While Hong Kong businesses and residents no doubt understand the need to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, the question on everyone’s minds remains – at what cost?

Here is our report from earlier this week (30 March 2020) on how Hong Kong bars have been getting creative thus far:

Hong Kong Bars Are Forced to Get Creative

Hong Kong’s bar industry has a lot on its plate. It has been dealing with the effects of the protests since they began last May. The city has also been at the forefront of the novel coronavirus outbreak, with government measures affecting bars in different degrees since January.

The establishments are battling through erratic bursts of punters, but the generally greatly reduced custom that passes through their doors each day has already made them fight to stay serving for coming up to nearly a year now.

Difficult decisions are having to be made around the world to curb socialising and reduce the spread of this mystifying virus that no country yet has a firm handle on. Hong Kong is now in the middle of the “second wave” of COVID-19, causing another surge of numbers of infections by Hong Kong citizens returning home from other countries. This has coincided with several cases being linked to the Lan Kwai Fong nightlife district, which led to the government’s announcement last week that they are planning to ban all liquor sales over the coming days.

What the announcement did not address was how the bar industry is going to pay its rent or staff when their sole trade has been removed from them, except for the questionably helpful advice from Chief Executive Carrie Lam stating that bars can “do something else”.

Managing partner of Ping Pong 129 in Sai Ying Pun Juan Martínez Gregorio said, “Her [Lam’s] statement about changing the operation to the selling of food comes out of the lack of knowledge of our industry and gives the impression she has not assessed nor has measured the implications before sounding out. I also find it quite ironic from someone who has proved herself so inflexible in the past.”

He added, “In our eyes, the ban was not properly planned and communicated, hence it led to confusion and controversy. Many colleagues wondered after her comments whether the alcohol ban was in operation or not. Everyone is trying to find alternatives, but as bars, the options are very limited.”

Ping Pong 129 Hong Kong

Ping Pong 129

David McEwan, owner of people’s favourite Bobby’s Rabble on Wyndham Street, also says that despite the fact that no actual decision has been made, the misinformation from last Monday’s press conference means that people have assumed the ban is in effect and are not going out.

We wondered about his take on Lam’s advice to “do something else”. McEwan said, “Pointless statement and no suggestions from the government. It has just left further confusion and frustration. Should we all ‘learn to code’?”

McEwan has some suggestions for what would actually help the bar industry right now. “Clarity on what is actually happening and guidance on what to do. If a ban is implemented, most venues will close for a period. If no ban, the government should explain to the public it is safe to go out. All bars had already implemented government safety procedures for weeks (masks, sanitiser, temperature guns, deep-cleaning, etc) – even more so than places such as libraries, barbershops, retail outlets, beauty spas and supermarkets, where it could be argued more people visit in one day and are therefore an even greater risk of contamination than bars.”

McEwan added, “Landlords understand the severity of the problem of this second wave of virus, already off the back of eight months of protests and two months of virus concerns in Hong Kong.”

The owner says that Bobby’s Rabble has been incredibly quiet since the announcement last Monday, despite the fact that the ban hasn’t even come into effect. “We’ve been regulating ourselves as stated by the government for several months. I went for a haircut yesterday, and there was no temperature check and no one was wearing gloves. All these little shops in different industries are in no way being held as responsible as the F&B industry, and yet we’re the ones getting targeted.”

Bobby’s Rabble has ramped up the outside-the-box thinking, with Zoom dial-in party packages featuring live online DJs and shout-outs ingeniously titled “Out of Bobby’s Experience”. They will also shortly be adding dial-in video quiz nights and cocktail classes whereby customers can buy a complete cocktail kit and link to the interactive video class in a bid to continue to serve their clients and provide some respite from the monotony of staying in.

The team at The Pontiac Hong Kong

The team at The Pontiac

Beckaly Franks, co-owner and bartender of ever-popular The Pontiac on Old Bailey Street, speaks of the implications that the government uncertainty has had on the people behind the bar businesses. “The current day-to-day with the government has its levels of toxicities for all of us. I don’t find it to be a thoroughly thought-out plan, and constantly living on the edge of our seat isn’t healthy. Our mental health is important too. Exactly no one has talked to us about subsidies related to the potential alcohol ban. Nor will they. We have signed every petition and applied for every grant we can. I hope I am wrong, but I don’t see the government going out of its way for small business. It would help if the government stepped in, warranted us subsidies so we could close for a proper amount of time whilst still providing wages and rent.”

Through it all, Franks radiates only positivity during the novel coronavirus crisis, saying, “The Pontiac will be doing everything we can to be creative and stable during these times. We are still completely capable of providing a service to our community Ponty style without selling booze. The idea is to be proactive as opposed to reactive. After all, we are commit to the lit.”

The Pontiac Hong KongThe Pontiac

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