How Asia’s bars are reopening post-lockdown

15th June, 2020 by Melita Kiely

Having been the first region to lock down because of Covid-19, Asia is finally coming back to life. But the restart is not without its problems, and bars and restaurants are having to take care.

*This feature was originally published in the June 2020 issue of The Spirits Business

The global on‐trade faces a long and difficult road to recovery. Following the outbreak of Covid‐19, lockdowns were swiftly imposed throughout Asia. But lifting them will be a much slower, more arduous challenge.

For a long time, China was at the epicentre of the coronavirus crisis, which is believed to have originated in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province. As the number of confirmed cases and Covid‐19‐related deaths in China began to rise, travel restrictions were put in place across the country in an attempt to stop the virus from spreading.

Other parts of Asia followed suit, before much of the world slowed, as lockdown procedures became a part of everyday life. But as the rate of infection and daily death tolls tumble, restrictions are being relaxed, and some parts of Asia are slowly coming back to life.


On 8 May, Hong Kong allowed bars to reopen, as long as they adhered to strict physical distancing rules. Seating capacity was capped at 50% and no more than four people could be seated together at one table at any time. Live performances and dancing were also forbidden – along with karaoke, a popular pastime in Asia.

A spokesperson for the Food and Health Bureau in Hong Kong said: “In light of the more stabilised situation in Hong Kong in terms of the number of confirmed cases of Covid‐19 in recent weeks and the ‘suppress and lift’ strategy adopted to contain the epidemic, a window of opportunity exists for us to lift some of the social distancing measures at the moment.”

Other parts of Asia, however, such as Singapore, remain under much stricter rules. At the time of writing, bars had been closed for approximately two months and were still unable to operate as normal.

“The situation is getting under control but it’s going to take a while more before reopenings are happening,” says Vijay Mudaliar, co‐founder of Singapore bar Native. “We can still turn up to work under strict conditions, but we have to make sure everyone is masked and wearing gloves. We are only allowed to do deliveries for now.”

Native in Singapore

Native in Singapore

Recovery is not as simple as implementing physical distancing measures – something Seoul, in South Korea, experienced first hand in May. Bars and clubs in the country were permitted to reopen on 6 May after being forced to close on 22 March. The restrictions were adjusted after the number of daily confirmed cases dropped to single figures.

But a fresh spike in new coronavirus infections linked to bars and nightclubs in Seoul’s Itaewon district has pressed pause on the on‐trade’s recovery. As of 22 May, there were 215 confirmed cases of Covid‐19 in South Korea related to reopened nightclubs, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).


As such, the KCDC advised: “In light of the recent rise in local transmissions related to clubs, bars, karaoke rooms and after‐school private academies, KCDC urges people to refrain from social gatherings or visiting any enclosed/confined/crowded spaces that are frequented by many people.” It’s an example of how infection rates can quickly spiral, but a blow to the on‐trade sector, which desperately needs to generate business.

Another challenge facing the on‐trade, even once venues are operational again, is a lack of consumer confidence. Research by CGA in China shows an almost 50/50 split between consumers who have been to visit on‐trade venues since they reopened and those who have stayed away.

CGA spoke to 2,000 consumers from some of China’s most developed on‐trade markets – Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu – as well as Wuhan, to gauge how customers have reacted to the reopening of eating and drinking establishments. The study took place from 7 to 11 May, and showed that since reopening, consumer attitudes towards eating and drinking out of home are polarised, with 52% staying at home and 48% venturing back out. However, of the 48% who had visited bars and restaurants, the majority have done so several times.

“This even split in a market in which eating and drinking out was a previously fundamental part of daily life highlights the apprehensive nature of consumers to go out again, as well as the precautions required to persuade consumers back into the out‐of‐home market,” said Phil Tate, CGA’s global CEO.

Hope & Sesame in Guangzhou

Hope & Sesame in Guangzhou

Hope & Sesame in Guangzhou, China, was closed for three‐and‐a‐half months from mid‐ January. As a small speakeasy, social distancing is tricky at best, but track‐and‐trace measures have been put in place to protect both staff and consumers. “It will definitely be difficult as we are a 100 sq m enclosed speakeasy,” co‐owners Andrew Ho and Bastien Ciocca explain. “People like to walk around and interact with each other. Therefore we have to make sure we take the temperature of guests upon their arrival, make sure disinfectants are available in close proximity to customers, and we make sure the guests have not visited any areas heavily affected by the virus in the past 14 days (telecom providers have a QR code to track city movements in the past 14 days).”

Staff are required to wear face masks at all times. Furthermore, an alarm sounds every 15 minutes to alert staff it’s time to wash their hands for 20 seconds. These may seem like extreme measures, but it’s all part of a collective effort to ensure everyone can enjoy their visit in the safest way possible.


But any return to normal will require a global consensus. “The bar industry is very well connected around the world nowadays, therefore, for it to truly return to normal, it will require all countries to have the virus contained,” Ho and Bastien add. “With what we see in the news, it doesn’t seem things will return to normal until the end of the year at least. However, we will focus more on domestic business, as China has returned to around 85% normality.”

They’re not the only ones who think it will still be anything from six months to a year before businesses can bounce back. Mudaliar highlights the link between the on‐trade in Asia and the travel sector. “We believe it might take another year or so before bars can operate as they used to,” Mudaliar says. “We are going to have to wait for a vaccine first of all, and also for many bars, tourism is a major factor. It might take a while before we’re able to operate as we used to and as an industry we need to stick together and come up with new ways to propel the industry.”

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