Cover The team at Arcane (Photo: Courtesy of Arcane)

The government needs to offer better support for our restaurants and bars so that we can deliver on the promise of being Asia’s world city

On 12 April 2021, Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced a preliminary road map for the easing of social distancing regulations for restaurants and inbound travellers in a bid to encourage higher uptake of vaccinations. At the time of writing, only 10 per cent of Hong Kong’s population have been vaccinated, a figure far behind the target of 70 per cent to achieve herd immunity. The new proposed rules targeting the restaurant industry are set into three stages, with varying levels of social distancing dependent on how many staff and customers have been vaccinated; restaurants that adhere to the lowest tier, where all staff have received at least one vaccine dose, will be able to seat up to six people per table and operate until midnight. The government have also doubled down on mandating restaurants use the LeaveHomeSafe app rather than offering a paper form option. In The Industry’s first op-ed, chef-owner Shane Osborn from Arcane and Cornerstone lays his thoughts bare about the proposed regulations.

As an industry, we've been in crisis mode for two years already. Our city’s reputation for world class food at all price points has been a draw card for international tourists for decades. However, with the hope of borders opening soon and many foodie tourists potentially hitting our shores, the government needs to offer better support our restaurants and bars so that we can deliver on our promise of being Asia’s world city.

I don't think we're expecting things to get back to 100 per cent capacity immediately, so some of the new rules and regulations that are coming in about opening seems to be more punishing than encouraging—it’s more stick than carrot. The majority of our staff are getting vaccinated, and it’s a very high uptake—about 90 per cent are already vaccinated so, for us, we already have herd immunity within the business. Out of all our employees, those who won't be getting vaccinated are because they've been advised by doctors not to, due to their underlying health issues.

I'm trying to promote vaccination as much as possible. My family got the virus seven weeks ago in France, all of them. My wife suffered quite badly and still does, seven weeks afterwards. She's got long Covid, and it's the worst she's ever felt in her life. I think once this virus really touches you personally, it really cements the idea that vaccination is the only way through this. We are a successful restaurant because everybody who works here contributes to the success of the business. So it's the same with the vaccine: we work as a team, we work as a community.

Some of the new rules and regulations that are coming in about opening seems to be more punishing than encouraging—it’s more stick than carrot

Governments all around the world keep talking about herd immunity, whether that's 60 to 70 per cent or 80 per cent of the community being vaccinated. If that is the goal within the community, then why can't you have that within restaurants as well? Meanwhile, the government's new regulations are demanding that you must have a 100 per cent vaccination rate, which I think is unachievable. Perhaps there are some businesses that'll achieve that, but they will be a minority. I don't think restaurants should be penalised just because they can't force all of their staff to get vaccinated. We are in the hospitality industry—it's all about trust and respect. Of course, I do want everybody to be vaccinated, for their safety and their family’s safety. But personally, I think it’s unfair to let someone go if they decide not to get the vaccine.

We understand that we have to be cautious with reopening. But I think that these regulations that the government is talking about are unfair. And I think we just need to work hand in hand with our staff. We can't expect our customers to show us their vaccine records on arrival—that goes against the very grain of being hospitable. We have already been very strict on our hygiene protocols in the restaurant and on collecting all the data for our customers, which we keep for one month and then we destroy. We should be allowed to continue that.

As for the LeaveHomeSafe app, about 60 per cent of our guests use it, and I know there's going to be pushback if we had to enforce its usage. If there's one person on a table of four that refuses to use the app, do we say, ‘I'm sorry, we can't accept you in the restaurant’? We’d just lose business. In addition, on average when we do 30 covers, we'll probably have two to four children come in under the age of 16. Well, they can't get vaccinated and are not even allowed to get vaccinated. What happens to them?

Even if people do use the app, it doesn't seem to be as effective or guaranteed to have a result. We had a diner come to Arcane four weeks ago who used the LeaveHomeSafe app, but we never got contacted when he tested positive. It was only because the guest was responsible enough to get in touch with me directly, that we were able to take affirmative action to close the restaurant and test all the staff.

The industry should be rewarded for how we've handled the pandemic over the last year. There haven't been large outbreaks in restaurants, save for one or two, which were well contained. Currently we are operating at 50 per cent capacity but we still have 100 per cent staff. We still have 100 per cent rent from the landlords. All our costs are still at 100 per cent, but we are only allowed to operate at 50 per cent—closing at ten o'clock only gives us four operating hours for dinner. It’s very hard, and puts a lot of pressure on the business financially. If a restaurant were able to open until midnight on the weekends, we would probably see an extra 20 per cent revenue on Friday nights at the very least; put that across a month, and that's the difference between a loss and break even, since restaurants work on very tight profit margin. One thing the government could do straight away is to allow restaurants to open an extra hour or two—at least until 11 o'clock, which would relieve a lot of pressure for businesses immediately.

In the end, we've just had to swallow a lot of our losses over the last year. The thing for me was to keep my staff, to keep us as a unit together. Being closed for dinners for three months was devastating financially, and we'll never recoup those losses. This industry is built on respect, community and hospitality—I truly think some of these rules and regulations going completely against that. It's hard enough operating as it is at the moment. We just need a little bit more trust, and to be respected as an industry more than we have been.

Tatler Dining does not necessarily share views expressed by opinion writers. We regularly invite figures from across the F&B industry to write for us in order to present a diversity of views.

Shane Osborn is the chef-owner of Arcane and Cornerstone, and the president of Food Made Good Hong Kong. Follow him on @shaneosbornchef