No more hotpot?

February 10, 2020 12:11
Hotpot chains are likely to suffer further decline in customers in Hong Kong following news that several members of a family were infected with a new coronavirus after they shared a meal last month. Photo: Reuters

Hotpot is not hot anymore after news that several members of a Hong Kong family are feared to be infected with the novel coronavirus after sharing a hotpot meal last month.

Following the media reports over the weekend, only the brave would go ahead with large gatherings for hotpot feasts as there are growing worries that the virus can spread via aerosol transmission.

Some medical experts believe aerosol transmission, which refers to the mixing of the virus with droplets in the air to form aerosols, causes infection after inhalation. The Hong Kong case of collective infection, which is said to have arisen after a family gathering for the Lunar New Year, will prompt citizens to avoid group meals that involve close contact with one another around a table.

Still, are the fears really justified and does hotpot deserve to be shunned?

One can argue that eating hotpot should be no problem, as the heat would kill the germs. The steam, which often bothers people with eyewear, might be a problem if it goes into the eyes. However, there is no scientific proof yet it was the reason for infection.

In the case of the family infection, it was probably more because of the poor air circulation inside the party room, which was reported to have been in a crowded industrial building, rather than the food in the hotpot.

Whatever the cause, people will now take a pass on hotpots. And it is bad news for the restaurant chains that have specialized in such offerings.

Haidilao International, the No.1 hotpot operator with a market capitalization of over HK$160 billion, has closed its outlets in mainland China since January 28, and there is no word yet as to when the operations will resume.

Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau outlets are open, but it won't be business as usual.

Ditto for Jiumaojiu International, which listed last month following strong investor response amid hopes the firm would replicate the Haidilao success.

Jiumaojiu was lucky to have completed its IPO just before the virus outbreak, as sentiment has changed quickly since then.

Among other eateries, Fai Gor, one of the most well-known hotpot operators locally, has said the virus scare was worse than anything the firm has seen.

Founder Yau Chi-fai remarked that during the anti-government protests last year, customers would come and eat early, "but this time people would not come out to eat because they do not have enough masks.”

With his restaurant sales dropping 70-80 percent, Yau said he would consider suspending the business temporarily until his customers regain confidence to eat out.

Well, let's look forward to such times. I hope we'll be able to watch the Euro 2020 and Tokyo Olympics while sitting in a group at a table and without having to wear face masks -- and joking about why we stocked up on toilet paper earlier in the year.

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EJ Insight writer

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