Date
26 February 2020
A man wears a protective mask as he watches a movie in Hong Kong on Feb. 10. The government has resisted calls to shut down the entertainment venues even as worries mount about the China coronavirus. Photo: Reuters
A man wears a protective mask as he watches a movie in Hong Kong on Feb. 10. The government has resisted calls to shut down the entertainment venues even as worries mount about the China coronavirus. Photo: Reuters

Why govt isn’t shutting entertainment venues despite the virus

As concerns grow over the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus, face masks have become a daily necessity for every citizen in Hong Kong.

Still, when it comes to the best way to prevent oneself from getting exposed to the deadly virus, the advice that is often heard is for people to always keep proper distance from one another in their everyday life, and avoid attending social gathering events frequently.

Earlier, Executive Councilor Dr. Lam Ching-choi claimed that in order to reduce the risk of transmissions in the community, he had suggested that the government order public entertainment venues such as movie theaters to close, only to be rejected outright by Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor within a matter of days.

It is said that the government looked into the feasibility of banning social activities among citizens through “hard means”, but eventually dropped the entire idea as it was felt that it wouldn’t work.

A government figure has revealed that the authorities did consider all possible means to reduce social activities among citizens, including invoking the Emergency Regulations Ordinance to shut down movie theaters.

Yet after thorough deliberations, the administration eventually refrained from doing so for fear that it could provoke a fierce backlash from the industry.

All movie theater operators need to do to make a case against such a decision is to question why the government was only seeking to suspend their operations and not the other recreational venues, the government figure said, asking, “What about karaoke, and bars and pubs?” 

The source noted that if the government orders a sweeping shutdown of all entertainment venues, it would certainly be able to minimize the chances of infection among the public, yet it would also give rise to a controversy: why not ban all other commercial activities that involve heavy foot traffic?

If the administration announced a complete shutdown of all business activities and markets across Hong Kong, it would not only deal a shattering blow to the local economy, it would also trigger widespread public panic, not to mention that it would, de facto, send a message to the international community that the Hong Kong government is unable to contain the coronavirus.

Given the various issues, the administration eventually concluded, after careful studies, that using “hard means” to prevent people from going out to attend social activities is simply infeasible.

And since legislating against public activities isn’t a viable option, all the government can do to ask citizens to stay home as far as possible is to rely on Executive Councilors or public health experts to gently remind people to avoid frequent outings and to keep a safe distance from one another in everyday life.

Unfortunately, what an Exco member did was “overstate” it when urging people to stay home, thereby giving the public a wrong impression that the authorities are about to restrict people to their homes through legislation, hence the government’s clarification.

As far commercial activities are concerned, sources revealed that the government had indeed also studied the feasibility of grinding horse racing to a complete halt.

Nonetheless, it is said that some experts within the government were fiercely opposed to the idea, on the grounds that since the authorities have urged citizens to stay home more often, crunching horse racing tips in newspapers and watching races live on TV have already become major forms of entertainment for quite a lot of grass-roots seniors in the city.

As such, halting horse racing completely would deprive the grass-roots elderly of their main entertainment, which could leave them more bored, and thus in turn prompt them to leave home and hang out, thereby increasing their risk of infection, the government experts argued.

It is against such a background that the administration finally decided to steer a middle course by allowing horse racing to go on but at the same time requesting the Jockey Club to further control the number of attendees in the racecourses during race meetings.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 12

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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JC/RC

Columnist of Hong Kong Economic Journal.