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Hong Kong and the mystery of the missing beaches

Hong Kong's twisting coastline of sparkling bays and sandy coves is the envy of the world. And with evidence increasingly pointing to coronavirus transmission occurring mainly indoors, the city's seaside would seem the perfect spot to head during a pandemic. However, it remains frustratingly off-limits, reports Asia Family Traveller.

The beach is calling - Hong Kong's stunning Yan Chau Tong Marine Park.

The relaxing of social distancing measures in Hong Kong last week has been met with relief and optimism.

After a lengthy ‘fourth wave’, with daily infection numbers soaring to triple digits on some days and multiple unidentified sources, it has been a painstaking process of ever-increasing distancing measures to get things back under control.

First to go was the ‘air travel bubble’ with Singapore that was just hours away from launching before officials decided that soaring cases made it untenable. Sadly, the bubble deflated quicker than the balloons decorating Hong Kong Airport to celebrate its launch.

Next came a repeat of the types of measures that had marred most of the summer during the city’s ‘third wave’ - closure of schools, closure of offices, restaurants forced shut at 6pm with no more than two patrons to a table, gyms shuttered, spas wound down and so on. And again, up went the barricades around Hong Kong’s beaches, despite them being technically ‘closed’ (meaning unpatrolled) for winter anyway.

Shek O beach on Hong Kong Island open to the public last spring between Covid-19 'waves'.

Returning residents were treated to ever more arduous quarantine restrictions. Mainland China, Macau and Taiwan remained exempted from hotel quarantine, although why New Zealand and Australia, also low-risk areas and recording fewer cases than mainland China, weren’t also permitted to bypass the regulations is anyone’s guess.

But perhaps the most confusing conundrum in Hong Kong’s sometimes contradictory response to the pandemic (why schools remained closed but Chinese New Year markets were allowed to continue shall remain one of life’s little mysteries) is that of its beaches.

By now, a year after the start of the pandemic, it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to expect a more nuanced response to distancing measures given the amount of research that has been carried out on transmission over the last 12 months.

Admittedly, at the beginning of last year, a panicked world had limited data. As Britain’s chief medical officer conceded last week, “we were essentially flying blind for large sections of time." Lack of testing capacity and not much clarity as to how the virus transmitted made for a frustrating few months. Blunt social distancing measures and restrictions on how people interacted was the best the experts could come up with.

And so when distancing measures were finally eased in Hong Kong at the end of a worrying ‘second wave’ in the spring of 2020, the city was shocked by pictures taken over the Easter break of beaches packed with sun seekers. Had people learnt nothing? A subsequent spike in infections was feared by many.

Repulse Bay beach sizzling in the summer heat but suspended for use.

As the city entered its ‘third wave’ in July, as well as Asia's sizzling summer heat, it was decided that many gazetted beaches should be closed to avoid a repeat of the Easter crowding.

It was a policy that was repeated around the world. In Britain, residents were forbidden from sunbathing even in local parks, such was the fear that the virus would be transmitted by ‘lingering’ individuals. When infections fell in late spring and social distancing requirements relaxed, pictures of packed British beaches were beamed around the world to shocked audiences.

In March, Australia’s famous Bondi Beach was shuttered after hundreds of people hit the sand. “What happened in Bondi was unacceptable,” fumed health minister Greg Hunt at the time. “Local council must take steps to stop that from occurring.”

Over in the US, Florida’s beaches were also closed after college students flocked to the seashore.

And in Singapore, access was restricted and a booking system introduced to keep Sentosa’s beaches under control.

However, despite the dire predictions, no corresponding spike in infections was detected in Hong Kong after the Easter beach experience - or indeed anywhere else in the world.

Boat business was brisk on Sai Kung seafront during the 'third wave' as day trippers flocked to non-patrolled beaches.

Nevertheless, Hong Kong's gazetted beaches remained firmly shut throughout the hot summer months. This, perhaps predictably, resulted in residents flocking to the city’s non-gazetted beaches, which tend to be more remote and are not patrolled by lifeguards. In soaring temperatures and with minimal recreational activity available and swimming pools closed, day trippers flooded Sai Kung promenade, a popular departure point for boats heading to the New Territories’ far-flung sandy spots. Boat companies selling round-tickets filled the promenade, with enticing adverts such as ‘Ham Tin - Hong Kong's Maldives’.

By September, the city’s third wave was over and social distancing had been relaxed again. Sports venues and swimming pools reopened and crowds filled the city’s malls, public transport systems and hiking trails. But, inexplicably, beaches remained off-limits.

By the time the ‘fourth wave’ hit in late autumn, beaches were technically closed for winter anyway, but the Covid-19 barricades remained. As during previous waves, with gyms and sports facilities shut, Hong Kongers were forced onto hiking trails to get their vitamin D hit and enjoy some fresh air, creating clogged tracks with distancing often impossible.

Chinese New Year saw crowded ferries and buses as residents tried to enjoy the balmy weather and head to popular outlying islands. But with no beach access, the tiny streets of popular islands such as Lamma and Cheung Chau were choked with visitors.

And now, as the city comes to the end of its fourth wave and sports grounds, schools, restaurants and even theme parks are starting to reopen, beaches still, again, and inexplicably, remain forbiddingly closed.

A deserted Stanley Main Beach the day after third wave distancing restrictions were introduced last summer.

Mask-wearing families who crept onto south Lantau’s beaches last weekend for a blast of fresh air were met with overbearing officials who reduced several toddlers to tears. “People were chased off the beach by extremely aggressive officers,” reported one bystander.

But this time around, the data no longer backs up the closures.

A British-based epidemiologist admitted this week that there is no evidence of an outbreak ever happening on beaches. He added that there is evidence stretching back as far as March and April last year that the virus does not transmit well outdoors.

“Over the summer we were treated to all this on the television news, pictures of crowded beaches, and there was an outcry about this,” said the epidemiologist, who sits on the UK government’s Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling. “There were no outbreaks linked to public beaches. There’s never been a Covid-19 outbreak linked to a beach, ever, anywhere in the world, to the best of my knowledge.”

Studies now show that sunlight and being outdoors reduces transmission considerably. One report published late in 2020 illustrates that temperature and humidity play a key role in the survival and therefore transmission of Covid-19. The virus survives best in low temperatures and dry air.

At 10 deg C with a relative humidity of 40%, virus droplets stayed active for as long as 27 hours. At 27 degrees and humidity at 65%, that figure dropped dramatically to an hour-and-a-half.

“Outside, you’ve got sunlight and ventilation to help you, even if it’s cold,” said study co-author Dylan Morris, who is an ecologist and evolutionary biologist at Princeton University. “In typical indoor settings, climate control keeps things cool and dry. Add in poor ventilation and limited UV and the virus does pretty well.”

This conclusion has been borne out by a recent scare in Australia when the more transmissible UK-detected variant of the virus was spread between rooms in quarantine hotels that had little natural ventilation. In one instance a quarantiner was infected by a family in a room opposite when the virus jumped the corridor. Infection of hotel staff has also highlighted the risk of the virus spreading via air particles. Infection control experts continue to raise concerns about the virus remaining stagnant in corridors.

Australia is subsequently looking into moving away from quarantine hotels in cities and establishing standalone camp-style facilities with outdoor cabins. The Howard Springs former mining-camp near Darwin was flagged up as a possibility.

And so it seems that if there is any lesson to be learnt from the last year, it is that good old fashioned fresh air and sunshine are the ideal antidote to coronavirus. Unfortunately Hong Kong’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department has yet to catch on.


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