Now that striking health-care workers have successfully forced Carrie Lam's government to close most of its border links with the mainland and dramatically restrict travel from elsewhere in China, a full-on panic has engulfed the city, fueled by "malicious rumors" about supply shortages, Reuters reports.
Chaos has erupted in some areas as supermarkets have imposed limits on how many items customers can buy. Hundreds of shoppers have thronged aisles of supermarkets as they struggle to buy up as many consumer staples - rice, water, meat, noodles etc. - as they can again on Friday. Chinese-ruled Hong Kong has reported 25 cases of the virus and one of only three deaths outside the mainland.
"Everyone’s snatching whatever they can get. I don’t even know what’s going on," said a 72-year-old woman surnamed Li as she clutched two bags of toilet rolls.
The situation in Hong Kong right now is incredibly tense. Many still have horrible memories from the SARS outbreak of 2002-2003, which killed roughly 300 people as it swept through the city. But the scare also comes after months of anti-Beijing protests by the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement.
Already, Matthew Cheung, chief secretary for administration, said that Hong Kong people returning from the mainland must stay home for a fortnight or risk a $3,200 fine and up to 6 months in jail. Non-Hong Kong residents must stay in government isolation centers or hotel rooms for the same period, facing the same penalties.
"Self discipline and having everybody in Hong Kong fighting...this infectious disease is the most important thing," said Sophia Chan, the city’s health secretary.
There was some good news in Hong Kong: Thousands of medical workers who had been on strike this week to press the government to close the border voted to suspend their action on Friday night, though they said they would continue to pressure the government for tighter measures to suppress the outbreak.
City authorities said they were conducting checks for the virus on a quarantined cruise ship carrying some 3,600 people that docked in Hong Kong this week. Meanwhile, health officials are trying to trace people who had traveled on the ship, many of whom disembarked in Hong Kong in January.
But while consumer staples and medical supplies like facemasks flew off the shelves, Hong Kong's biggest shopping centers were eerily empty: Bloomberg reported from a deserted shopping mall.
Reporters described the few shoppers hurrying past them wearing face masks. In the luxury stores, sales assistants, also in masks, outnumber customers, if there were any customers at all. To pass the time, many leaned against counters and played on their phones.
This was the scene on Tuesday inside Hong Kong's Times Square, a massive megamall in Causeway Bay. The mall is home to the world's priceiest retail strip.
As tourism plummeted in Hong Kong last year, the city's economy sank into a recession. And just as things were starting to look up for luxury retailers in the city, the virus has come along and ruined everything.
Times Square fronts Russell Street, where at $28,713 per-square-meter a year, retail rents top salubrious addresses like New York’s Upper 5th Avenue ($23,549) and the Champs Elysee ($15,473), according to Cushman & Wakefield Plc.
The strip is usually thronged by thousands of shoppers hitting upmarket stores like Burberry, La Perla and Audemars Piguet. Not this day though. Two employees at an Omega boutique stare into space as pedestrians walk by without a glance at the watches on display.
"Many retailers are saying it’s a disaster," said Nicholas Bradstreet, managing director of leasing at Savills Plc. "In the last 10 days, their sales have been down 70% to 80% week-on-week. There’s very little traffic into the shops" particularly in key retail districts like Central, Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui, he added.
Further down the strip, the empty Prada store is preparing to leave the area, having quit its lease four months earlier. Retail sales in the city plunged 20% in December, the latest in a string of terrible monthly showings.