Hong Kong amid COVID-19
By Richard Hatter
Note: This blog was first published on 3 March 2020 on www.hotelsmag.com, where Richard has been invited to contribute a monthly blog.
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I was in Hong Kong managing a Shangri-La property during the 2002-03 SARS outbreak that killed 299 people. This stint gave me a bit of experience in continuity services, and we know what we are up against with the invisible danger of COVID-19.
The biggest challenge is keeping services running here at the Hotel Icon, and to mitigate the risk of infection of staff from guests or among the staff themselves. We’ve asked staff take leave now that they are clearing holiday pay, which will see us through to March. Then we will have to start looking at unpaid leave.
No disruption in ice cream service at The Market restaurant.
Having the staff on leave does help reduce the risk somewhat. We also compartmentalize the hotel and limit the roam area of staff, and make that impact surface as small as possible. We don’t hold meetings unless they are essential, and we are using WhatsApp and email so as to avoid face-to-face contact.
We anticipate the peak of the virus to be around April and hope it will follow a similar pattern as SARS, which means it would disappear around June or July.
So far, we’ve closed one restaurant and shortened the operating hours of the other. The Market, our buffet restaurant, is still doing reasonably well with 100 covers per sitting, but rooms occupancy is abysmal: 12% on most days and 25% at weekends. The spa also is closed and pool opening hours restricted until we get a better take on the spread of the virus, which some experts warn could peak in April.
Hong Kong schools have been closed for weeks and kids are studying from home.
Many of Hong Kong’s hoteliers are having similar discussions about their operation and lives in a city that has had up-close and personal experience of a deadly viral outbreak.
In 2002-03, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, swept through hospitals and homes. With 67 cases of the novel COVID 19 confirmed at the moment in Hong Kong and two deaths, everyone is wary.
As a result of fake news of shortages that the government has condemned, many supermarkets have been emptied of hand sanitizer, toilet paper, rice and packet noodles. Surgical masks are a real issue; we have a one-month supply left and hope that production will have resumed by then, but the concern is real.
Indeed, the outbreak is impacting day-to-day life in other ways for the families. Schools have been closed for weeks and our children are holed up Hong Kong’s notoriously small apartments. Kids have online learning and school faculty do their best to keep them occupied. Playgrounds, parks and leisure services are closed and empty.
University students have experienced months of disrupted classes as a result of the protests, and, as one would imagine, final-year students are wondering if they will graduate.
Many of my team, like other admin staff, work from home so as to avoid using public transport.
I was in Central a couple of days ago for a haircut, and the pavements were unusually empty. Those people you do see were masked, and the hairdresser, also masked, was complaining of dire business.
However, for us and many F&B, tourism, airlines, catering and retail businesses, the virus has exacerbated an already ailing situation after eight months of protests – it’s a real double whammy. A hotel I know of has had to lay off 40 full-time staff and put other staff on five to 10 days unpaid leave.
Moving forward, the issue is going to be that Europe and America are largely unaffected, but Asia looks horrible. That will definitely impact the appetite of EU/ES visitors to come to Hong Kong. Our market segment demographics have always been very diverse, so we were not as badly hit as some where the bulk of the business was from the China.
Clearly there is a correlation when one looks at the chart of the SARS infection. The big question, though, is did it die off because of the hot weather or because contact tracing and isolation measures worked?
If it’s the former, it could be May before the virus dies off (assuming it’s equally susceptible). If the latter, it could be March. It’s really hard to say for sure if Hong Kong business will bounce back as fast as it did after SARS. In that case, by August, most hotels were in the 90% occupancy range.