Beloved communal hot pot falls victim to Hong Kong virus fears

HONG KONG • Hot pot has become the latest casualty of the coronavirus outbreak after 10 members of a family in Hong Kong became infected after sharing the dish, a much loved favourite during winter.

Comprised of a vat of soup at the centre of a table, hot pot is a deeply communal dish.

Those enjoying it dip a variety of meats, seafood and vegetables into the bubbling broth, which becomes more intense as the meal progresses.

But health experts have sounded warnings after a cluster of coronavirus cases were discovered in one Hong Kong family who all shared a hot pot with a carrier from China over the Chinese New Year holiday.

As the 10th positive case was confirmed within the family on Monday, stocks for large hot pot companies with restaurants in Hong Kong and China plunged.

Xiabuxiabu closed down 7.1 per cent, Haidilao ended 4.8 lower while Yihai International, which makes seasonings and sauces for hot pot, dropped 2.7 per cent.

In Hong Kong, major restaurant chains including Fairwood, Cafe de Coral, Yoshinoya and Maxim’s announced they were temporarily pulling hot pot from their menus.

Maxim’s also confirmed that two of the infected family members from the hot pot cluster worked in two of its branches, which would be closed for disinfecting.

Haidilao, China’s largest hot pot chain, has already closed all its branches on the mainland, where the virus outbreak has killed more than 1,000 people.

It would not close its Hong Kong branches, but would start checking the temperatures of patrons.

Mr Sam Wong, 39, who owns 66 Hotpot, a family-run restaurant in the bustling district of Mongkok, said some 20 customers have cancelled their bookings since the news of the family cluster emerged.

“I don’t think the focus should be placed specifically on hot pot, considering the habit among Chinese people of communally sharing food,” he said. “But given hot pot is part of this cluster infection case, our business can’t help but be affected.”

He said he was conducting thermometer checks on all customers, had placed disinfectant soaked floor mats at his restaurant entrance and was replacing reusable chopsticks with disposable ones.

Ms Emily Mok, a flight attendant, came to Mr Wong’s restaurant before it opened on Monday evening and ordered a hot pot for takeaway.

“My boyfriend and I will have hot pot at home because we don’t want to consume it in a restaurant, where we don’t know who is sitting next to us,” she said.

Even before this year’s health crisis, Hong Kong’s catering industry had been battered by months of political unrest as Hong Kongers push for greater democratic freedoms and police accountability.

In the last quarter of last year, when the protests were at their most violent, the catering industry suffered a 14 per cent drop compared with the same period in 2018, according to government figures.

Retail, tourism, and entertainment industries have been similarly hit.

Mr Wong’s restaurant had weathered the unrest because he was a well-known pro-democracy supporter. With protesters keen to support the businesses, he said he almost always had queues outside.

“Now you can simply walk in,” he lamented.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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