COVID-19 Legal Regulatory Framework

07Apr2020

As the Coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak continues to spread, Hong Kong has taken rigorous actions in combat of the infection surge.  This article serves to briefly outline the anti-epidemic measures imposed by the Hong Kong Government and their relevant legal implications on individuals.

Entry to Hong Kong

With effect from 0:00 a.m. on 25 March 2020, all non-Hong Kong residents from overseas countries and regions by plane will be denied entry to Hong Kong, and non-Hong Kong residents from the Mainland, Macao and Taiwan will be denied entry to Hong Kong as well if they have been to any overseas countries and regions in the 14 days prior to the intended entry.  Such measure was originally set to be 14 days but is currently being extended to an indefinite period until the Government sees appropriate to remove the restriction. Persons entering Hong Kong by means other than planes are not subject to this inbound restriction.

All Hong Kong residents and non-Hong Kong residents from the Mainland, Macao and Taiwan generally will be allowed to enter Hong Kong but subject to a 14-days compulsory quarantine order which will be outlined below.

One must however note that any person entering Hong Kong must not represent to any officer that he or she is so designated or provide false or misleading particulars in connection with the performance of the officer’s function under the Regulations. Any contravention of the provisions is a criminal offence and is liable on conviction to a fine of $25,000 (level 4) and 6 months’ imprisonment.

Compulsory quarantine upon arriving Hong Kong

The Department of Health will issue quarantine orders to all persons entering Hong Kong and persons concerned must comply with the order to stay at a designated place for a 14-days compulsory quarantine.  A designated place can be (1) a quarantine centre operated by the Government; or (2) a home or other accommodations like a hotel or hostel.

The compulsory quarantine order is a stringent measure that serves as the first gate in the combat.  Any person subject to the order must not contravene the terms specified, in particular, must not leave the place of quarantine without permission given by an authorized officer.  Any person should be aware that they should not knowingly enter an assigned place of quarantine in which another person is placed under quarantine unless with the permission of an authorized officer.  Contravention of the provisions without reasonable excuse is an offence liable on conviction to a fine of $25,000 and 6 months’ imprisonment.

Quarantine and isolation of the general public

A health officer may require any person in Hong Kong who is a contact (a person who has been, or is likely to have been, exposed to the risk of contracting an infectious disease) to be quarantined or isolated until the health officer considers the person is not infectious. The same obligation arises for persons to comply with the order. However under exceptional circumstances, the Regulation does open a window and provides a basis for situations where permissions may be given to certain persons to enter and exit from the designated quarantine or isolation, for example, a situation when the person subjected to isolation is a minor or infant where the parent(s) would urge for an accompaniment.

Quarantine of pets

Recently, there has been extensive discussion on a controversial issue as to whether authorized officers have the power to seize and detain dogs and cats for quarantine.  As the Prevention and Control of Disease Regulations, particularly Part V provides power to order quarantine and isolation for persons, the general public has asked what powers are vested in officers to enforce quarantine on pet dogs and cats.

After the recent death of the pet Pomeranian upon return from quarantine, the issue of quarantine of pets has become a hot topic.  Pet owners are eager to protect their pets from quarantine and concern with the adequacy of treatment at the “quarantine centre”.  Under section 6 (1)(b) of Dogs and Cats Ordinance, Cap. 167, any police officer or any authorized officer may, on the production of his authority, if required, to seize, remove and detain any dog or cat which he has reasonable cause to believe to be suffering from any infectious disease.  However, as there is yet to have evidence of transmission of the Covid-19 from dogs or cats to human, such controversy as to whether the pet could be considered as suffering from an “infectious disease” may attract potential lawsuits and continue to raise public demand for clarification.

Other updated anti-epidemic measures

Prohibition on group gathering

With effect at 0:00 a.m. on 29 March 2020, group gathering of more than four (4) persons in any public place is prohibited for a period tentatively up till 23 April 2020. The legislation intends to maintain social distancing, being a key to delay the spreading of the infectious disease.  People are encouraged to go out less and avoid social activities such as meal or other gatherings.   If a prohibited group gathering takes place, i.e. more than four (4) persons, each of the persons commits an offence.  A person who participates in the gathering, organizes the gathering, or owns, controls or operates the place in which the gathering takes place and knowingly allows the taking place of the gathering, will all be liable on conviction to a fine of $25,000 and 6 months’ imprisonment.  Prosecution may be dispensed with for persons who participate in the gathering if he/she complies with the demand notice and discharge liability by paying a fixed penalty of $2,000.  Certain group gatherings as listed under Schedule 1 of the Regulation are, however, exempted, for example, gathering for the purposes of or related to transportation, at a place of work, or of persons living in the same household etc.

For more information, https://www.coronavirus.gov.hk/eng/social_distancing-faq.html#FAQ2.

It should be noted that the Regulation regulates social group gathering in public places.  “Public places” is defined as places where members of the public can get permission to access from time to time, whether by payment or not.  Private properties that allow access by members of the public from time to time, such as cinemas, shops and restaurants, fall under this definition of public places and the requirements regarding group gathering under the Regulation will apply. 

Requirements and directions for certain premises and business

Directions regarding catering business and “scheduled” premises came into force with effect on 28 March 2020.  For catering business, it is directed that the number of customers at any premises on which food or drink is sold or supplied for consumption on the catering premises at any one time must not exceed 50% of the normal seating capacity and tables available for used by customers must be arranged in a distance of 1.5 metres or with some form of partition which could serve as an effective buffer.  No more than four (4) persons may be seated together at one table, and a person must wear a mask at any time within the catering premises except when the person is consuming food or drink. 

“Scheduled” premises include amusement game centres, bathhouses, fitness centres, places of amusement, places of public entertainment and party rooms must cease business and close down for a period tentatively up until 23 April 2020. On 1 April 2020, the direction further extended to the closure of karaoke establishments, mahjong-tin kau establishments, nightclubs and further on 3 April 2020, to bars and pubs or any part of a catering business premise that is exclusively or mainly used for the sale or supply of intoxicating liquors.

Any contravention of the requirements and directions would be liable on conviction to a fine of $50,000 and 6 months’ imprisonment.

Post-note

The Government has implemented stringent measures and will continue to actively enforce and penalize breaches under these regulations.  To date, courts have imposed prison sentences of between 10 days to 3 months for breach of quarantine provisions.  A 31-year old man reportedly gave a false residential address was sentenced to 3 months’ imprisonment and two men aged 37 and 41 left their places of quarantine and received 10 days and 6 weeks’ imprisonment respectively.  There is no doubt that we are currently undergoing an extremely difficult period.  The anti-epidemic measures outlined above may help to delay the spreading of the disease on one hand, but cause substantial disruption to daily lives and businesses.   It is noted that Employers may experience tremendous pressure in the protection of employees’ affairs and at the same time maintaining the business to strive through this difficult time.  But, with strict compliance to the effective measures and enhancement of personal hygiene, together we will win this battle and the current upheaval will not last long.

Tanner De Witt has already dealt with a number of cases concerning breaches of quarantine provisions.  If you need advice in respect of the above matters, please contact Philip Swainston, Consultant at +852 2573 5000.

Philip Swainston and Karl Wong

Disclaimer: This publication is general in nature and is not intended to constitute legal advice. You should seek professional advice before taking any action in relation to the matters dealt with in this publication.