By Shibani Mahtani and Theodora Yu,
Chan Long Hei Bloomberg News
HONG KONG — It takes two to tango. But in Hong Kong, it took dozens of middle-aged women and their young, male dance instructors to spark a coronavirus cluster responsible for the city’s worst outbreak, erasing impressive gains in suppressing the pandemic.
Described by Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, as an “ultra-large cluster,” more than 500 cases — about 10 percent of the city’s total — have been linked to the dancers, prompting officials to reinstate some of the tightest restrictions since the virus was detected here in January.
On Monday, Lam announced new measures that will effectively push Hong Kong back into a semi-lockdown, with yoga and other gym classes canceled, diners limited to two per table, entertainment venues shuttered and the suspension of schools until 2021. Civil servants will work from home, a step that private businesses have often followed.
The sudden resurgence of the virus has undercut what had been one of the world’s more effective pandemic containment efforts. Hong Kong had been on track to reopen quarantine-free travel with Singapore in November, in what would have been a step toward normalized travel in Asia, but the emergence of the latest wave blew the experiment off course.
Those who have contracted the virus from the dance cluster “are all over the place,” spread across every area in the city, Lam said. “Many of the cases have been to many different places, involved in all sorts of activities,” she added.
The dance clubs, not to be confused with night clubs, are social venues catering largely to elite, wealthy women. They learn salsa, ballroom and other forms of dance from younger male instructors, involving close contact.
Many of those who contracted the virus from these venues later went on to visit bars and restaurants, spreading it further. The Hong Kong government has expanded mandatory testing to include some of those restaurants, as well as the dance halls. A new cluster is emerging, linked to three restaurants, including 8½ Otto e Mezzo-Bombana, the only Italian restaurant outside Italy to be awarded three Michelin stars.
People wait outside a bakery in Hong Kong on Monday. The city is suffering from a new wave of coronavirus cases.
Lam admitted in a news conference Monday that these dance clubs were not regulated. Last week, the Hong Kong government shuttered bars, bathhouses and night clubs, but the cha-cha and tango could go on at the dancing venues, a loophole that remains.
“Anyone could rent a space” and open a dance studio, Lam said. “We do not have a regulatory regime [controlling them], but now I will ask for further regulation of such activities on the premises.”
Experts who study the novel coronavirus say Hong Kong’s success rested on its ability to perform contact tracing and get close contacts of confirmed cases into quarantine centers right away, cutting down on the need for social distancing. But moving into quarantine facilities, which range in quality and comfort, is something the wealthy socialites involved in this cluster might have been unwilling to do.
“There’s been some gradual slippage in compliance with public health measures in Hong Kong and compliance with the guidelines,” said Ben Cowling, professor of infectious-disease epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong.
In the dance cluster, he added, “the types of people who were involved and their lifestyles” made contact tracing harder.
Across the city, parents, owners of restaurants and gyms, and others affected by the new restrictions were bracing for the impact. Businesses have been hit hard by the pandemic, and parents have struggled with the inconvenience of school closures. Hong Kong had largely returned to normal before this latest wave, but students will now revert to online classes until after the Christmas holidays.
Conrad Wong, father of a 10-year-old and a 7-year-old, said he feels helpless about his children having to attend school online again but accepts that the decision was for their safety.
“My children are happier and more focused when they attend classes at school,” Wong said. “But as parents, there is nothing we can do” about the pandemic.
Wong and others blamed the Hong Kong government for allowing loopholes — such as exempting arriving travelers from quarantine requirements — that have caused recurring outbreaks and forced the closure of businesses.
He said inbound travelers from mainland China, some of whom are not required to quarantine, have worried him.
“I’ve foreseen this outbreak happening sooner or later,” he said. “It is a matter of when, instead of who.”
Lam, pressed on her handling of the pandemic at the news conference Monday, insisted that her government has done nothing wrong, and she rejected suggestions that she had moved too slowly in containing the latest wave before her administration forced the new slate of restrictions.