At least 11 family members became infected with the new coronavirus after gathering for hotpot in Kwun Tong on January 26. Nine members of the family were confirmed to have it on Sunday, with two more confirmed later. Their ages range from 22 to 68.
The infections have led to restaurants in Hong Kong scrambling to remove hotpot from their menus.
Facing mounting public concern, major catering chains in Hong Kong, such as Fairwood, Cafe de Coral and Maxim’s, announced on Monday they would temporarily suspend hotpot menu items.
Maxim’s revealed on Monday that two of the infected family members were its employees who worked at Moko mall in Mong Kok and Alexandra House in Central. The two outlets would be closed for two weeks for cleaning and disinfection, the company said.
Japanese fast-food chain Yoshinoya also suspended hotpot meals, while Chinese restaurant chain Fulum Group did so the day before.
China’s largest hotpot restaurant chain, Haidilao, said on Monday that it would continue operations at its four branches in Hong Kong, but would take measures to prevent the spread of the virus – including conducting temperature checks on customers and providing hand sanitisers.
Simon Wong Ka-wo, president of the Hong Kong Federation of Restaurants and Related Trades, said hotpot businesses had declined more than 50 per cent since the outbreak.
“Winter used to be their peak season, but the outbreak of the virus has caused them to suffer a lot, and news about cases related to hotpot will worsen this,” he said. Hotpot is a communal meal with a heated soup pot in the middle that allows diners to toss in their own mix of meats or seafood with vegetables.
Restaurants in the city have for a long time required individual cutlery that is separate from the communal ladles used for dishing out the soup to diners. Wong noted some hotpot restaurants placed a barrier between diners at the same meal to ensure some form of protection, but he said this hurt the mood of the gathering.
Doctors were divided on whether having hotpot meals could increase the risk of catching the coronavirus.
Professor David Hui Shu-cheong, a respiratory medicine expert from Chinese University, said the problem was not the meals but the fact that diners gathered close to one another.
But infectious diseases expert Dr Joseph Tsang Kay-yan said hotpot meals posed high risks of infection, as apart from close contact, the heat from the hotpot could enable droplets loaded with the virus and suspended in the air to travel further and be inhaled.