"It pays to be paranoid," says Time Out Hong Kong editor Tatum Ancheta. Despite being the first place outside mainland China to record a case, Hong Kong is now largely open, though strict restrictions remain. Early and rigorous lockdown measures paid off for the city, which went 23 days without a single case of community transmission and has now reopened its bars, restaurants, cinemas and workplaces.
Ancheta is talking to me from the Time Out Hong Kong office, which I eye enviously via videolink from my dining room table. With just over 1,000 total cases and only four deaths from the disease, Hong Kong has become the shining example of how to cope – and it just might show Australia the way forward.
Bars, restaurants, cinemas and gyms reopened in Hong Kong on May 8, and Ancheta says Hong Kongers were itching to get out on the town as soon as they could. "Bars are allowed to operate at half capacity and seat only four people at the same table. During the first night of the opening, people were excited and flocked to the bars even if it means they had to wait for their turns to get in. Reservations are encouraged so that the numbers of guests can be controlled."
She says staff at bars and restaurants wear masks, as do most patrons. "Some bars do not allow entry for guests who are not wearing a mask, but you can take off the mask as soon as you are seated. It becomes a habit as well to wear the mask as soon as you pay the bill and are ready to leave the bar."
Staff also offer patrons hand sanitiser and do a quick temperature check before anyone is allowed to enter. Anyone running a fever is turned away. The same is true in retail, with temperature checks required before shopping, and shoppers must wear masks.
Ancheta says everything isn't completely back to normal yet, with larger bars and restaurants adding partitions between tables and live music and dancefloors still off the cards for the moment. Restaurants are also allowed to operate at half capacity, can only seat eight people at the same table, and there has to be enough space between tables.
Keen to get back into the gym? The lesson from Hong Kong is there's a way to do it safely. "Gyms and other fitness centres have reopened at the same time as the bars, and fitness classes have been fully booked," Ancheta says. "Gyms are only allowed to congregate eight people in a class, and that already includes the instructor, so some gyms installed wood partitions in large studios to make sure people will not exceed more than the allowed numbers. Gyms like this one have even installed clear partitions between their treadmills."
Although cinemas have also reopened, Ancheta says it might be a while before people feel comfortable watching a movie in a room full of strangers. Cinemas are also allowed to operate at half capacity, and only eight people can sit in the same row. But the real reason people might be staying away? "Eating within the premises is also not allowed, so no popcorn at the cinema for now."
But while Hong Kong offers one version of the future, with careful fun back on the cards, Singapore offers a much darker one. The country had one of the best records in the world and began relaxing restrictions, but a second wave of infection has forced citizens back into lockdown. At the start of April, Singapore had recorded about 1,000 cases, but it now has more than 26,000. Although Singapore now says it has the second wave under control, it's a sobering reminder that rates can spike out of control even when things look like they are going well.