(Bloomberg) — A resurgence of the virus is scuppering hopes of a return to normalcy in Hong Kong.
A key travel bubble with Singapore was delayed for a second time on Tuesday, some international banks ordered their staff to resume working from home and Carrie Lam, the city’s chief executive, said even parties at sea are off limits.
It’s a sobering reminder of how quickly circumstances can change. After a long lull with just a handful of cases a day, the deteriorating situation in Hong Kong prompted the government to impose tighter social-distancing rules and to close schools again. The city reported 82 new infections on Tuesday.
While Hong Kong’s resurgent outbreak is far less intense than in the U.S. and Europe, where cases in some places are still hitting daily records, it’s been enough to usher in a raft of new restrictions. With nightclubs and karaoke parlors closed, a hotline for residents to report parties aboard yachts and rented party boats has been set up, Lam told a weekly news briefing Tuesday.
“The reporting hotline newly set up is there because we see that, after party rooms and karaoke parlors have been made to close, there are a number of people who organize events at sea,” Lam said. “We want to target such a breach.”
While Hong Kong is poised to limit public gatherings to two people, the government hasn’t capped the number of people who can meet in private. A police representative declined to elaborate on the rules on whether the measure would have any effect on private parties hosted by yacht owners, referring only to the earlier Facebook post.
Meanwhile, global banks in the financial hub from Goldman Sachs Group Inc. to Standard Chartered Plc are urging more staff to work from home again.
Goldman Sachs will go back to a full work-from-home approach in Hong Kong starting Wednesday except for staff that have to be in the office to perform their roles, according to a staff memo that was confirmed by a bank spokesman.
Standard Chartered has applied a hard split-team arrangement for functions that require work in the office, and shortened branch hours last Friday, according to a spokeswoman. “In view of Covid wave 4, we strongly encourage our staff to work from home where possible,” she said.
But perhaps Tuesday’s biggest setback was the delay until 2021 of the keenly anticipated travel corridor between Hong Kong and Singapore. That’s a blow for the region’s airlines and tourism businesses seeking to start a recovery from the almost year-long pandemic.
The travel bubble that would have involved rigorous Covid testing will be delayed beyond 2020, and the cities said Tuesday they will review the arrangement for 2021 toward late December. The pact, which would have allowed passengers to travel between the centers without a quarantine, was already postponed by two weeks on Nov. 21, a day before flights were due to start.
The decision was taken “in view of the severity of the epidemic situation in Hong Kong with the number of local cases of unknown sources increasing rapidly,” the Hong Kong government said in a statement.
Strict border curbs have helped Asia contain the coronavirus better than in other parts of the world, with countries from China to New Zealand limiting the entry of travelers and imposing mandatory quarantines as a way of stopping the virus at their doors. But the approach — which has seen some all but eliminate Covid-19 — has come at a heavy cost, decimating tourism with cross-border travel basically paralyzed.
While in-country containment of the virus has resulted in the world’s 10 busiest domestic air travel routes now all being in Asia, according to OAG Aviation Worldwide Ltd., Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. and Singapore Airlines Ltd. continue to struggle as they have no domestic travel market to fall back on. Cathay shares are down 26% this year; Singapore Airlines has slipped 31%.
A rise in cases in either Hong Kong or Singapore was always a risk for those who booked tickets when the bubble plan was announced on Nov. 11. It’s still possible to travel between the two cities, but a mandatory quarantine applies on both sides.
Singapore and Hong Kong had said they hoped the agreement can be a model for other nations trying to open up. Air traffic globally is expected to be at just 33% of 2019 levels at the end of this year, and “hopefully” at 50% to 60% by the end of 2021, Alexandre de Juniac, director general of the International Air Transport Association, said last month.
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