Restaurants give hotpot cold shoulder over coronavirus fears, though experts question link

Photo Illustration via Flickr/Saad Akhtar.
Photo Illustration via Flickr/Saad Akhtar.

Four huge Hong Kong restaurant chains have stopped offering hotpots after a doctor on Monday maintained in a radio interview that the conditions created by the simmering broth could facilitate the spread of coronavirus — a claim others in the field were quick to rebut.

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Joseph Tsang Kay-yan first made the suggestion the that the continuous circulation of the steam from a boiling hotpot could contribute to the coronavirus’s spread in an interview with RTHK following reports that several members of a local family had been infected following a family gathering where the dish was served.

“The heat emitted by the circulation of the steam can cause the water content in the droplets spread by the virus-infected patient [by speaking, sneezing or coughing] to evaporate, making the droplet smaller and lighter and therefore it can spread farther,” Tsang said.

He added that the ventilation systems commonly found in hot pot restaurants could further circulate the virus.

“Overall speaking, [sharing a hot-pot meal] is a dangerous activity,” he said, also noting the increased likelihood of the disease’s spread in close quarters.

Hours later, four ubiquitous casual restaurant chains — Fairwood, Cafe de Coral, Maxim’s MX, and Yoshinoya (the latter two being owned by Maxim’s Catering Group) — said that they would no longer be offering the dish as part of stepped-up anti-virus measures, Headline News reports.

However, other medical experts were quick to point out that there was currently no evidence to support Tsang’s theory.

Professor Wong Tsz-wai, adjunct professor of public health and primary care at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), said in a radio interview on Monday that, “Theoretically speaking, vapor will not enhance the spread of droplets, be they the carrier of the virus or not.”

“Instead, close contact between people when they are dining will enhance the infection,” he added, noting that the virus itself is already quite contagious without the purported boost from hotpot steam.

Professor David Hui Shu-cheong, associate director of the faculty of Public Health and Primary Care at CUHK, echoed Wong’s stance, telling NowTV that the heat from the steam generated from hotpot, which can reach as high as 60 degrees celsius, should actually be capable of killing the virus.

“The reason why diners would be infected is mostly that they are sitting too close to each other,” Hui said.

The hotpot fears appear to be linked to news that at least 10 people from the same family had been diagnosed with the coronavirus after participating in a hotpot meal over the Lunar New Year holiday. Two of those people also happened to be Maxim’s employees, prompting the restaurant group to disinfect and close the two locations where they worked for two weeks, RTHK reports.

So far, the total number of coronavirus cases in Hong Kong stands at 38.

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