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The ‘New Normal’ of Pandemic Life Is the Old Normal for Hong Kong

HONG KONG —  Two blocks from my apartment on the western edge of Hong Kong Island, a Starbucks has been transformed into what looks like a construction zone, or maybe a strange art installation.

An armchair near the window was cordoned off for a time with masking tape, and more strips stretched over and around other chairs nearby, taut like tightropes over their neighboring tabletops. Rectangles of white cardboard are clipped to the sides of tables, which now look more like office cubicles than places to gather with friends.

But if the customers are fazed by the oddness of their surroundings, they don’t show it.

On a recent Tuesday night, a young couple huddled at one of the tape-free tables, laughing at something on the girl’s phone. A man hunched over his laptop, seemingly oblivious to the silos shielding him from his fellow patrons.

Hong Kong was one of the first places outside mainland China to be hit by the coronavirus, and immediately the landscape of the city changed.

There were temperature checks at every public building, and signs in elevators telling you how often the buttons were sanitized. A pharmacy chain handed out fistfuls of stickers with every purchase, featuring the chain’s mascot — a winking orange cat — and a reminder: “Wash your hands! Rub your hands! 20 seconds, Thx.”

Everywhere, there were reminders that these were not normal times.

Four months later, those signs are still around. But the city is humming back to life — not really in spite of those omnipresent reminders so much as alongside them.

The attendance for morning tai chi in the park behind my apartment has grown from a few elderly ladies in face masks to dozens. The crowds strolling along Victoria Harbor have grown denser, children giggling behind the plastic visors their parents force on them. Many cha chaan tengs — the hole-in-the-wall Cantonese diners that serve up milk tea, egg tarts and beef chow fun — still offer discounts for takeout, but the tables inside are beginning to fill up, too.

Most directly, this is a response to the good news of recent weeks.

Hong Kong has recorded just three locally transmitted cases in the last 30 days. Only four people are reported to have died of Covid-19. The government has loosened social-distancing restrictions, allowing civil servants to go back to work and restaurants to return to full capacity, instead of half.

But that’s not the only reason the virus no longer seems to rule every facet of life here. While fear and anxiety linger, Hong Kongers seem particularly adept at living with those emotions — maybe not embracing this strange new reality, but not recoiling from it either.

That unflappability has struck me sharply during my time here.

I moved to Hong Kong from New York City three months ago. Before boarding the plane, I had never worn a face mask. Many of my conversations with friends back home revolve around how long it will take for things to go back to the way they were before. Like, really like before — not just without stay-at-home orders and shuttered businesses, but also without masks and the words “social distancing.”

In Hong Kong, “real” life doesn’t seem so mutually exclusive with our present one. That’s in no small part because the city has been through this before.

Before moving, I read up on Hong Kong’s last battle with an epidemic: SARS. I knew it had been scarred by the disease, which barreled across the city in 2003 and killed almost 300 people. But I didn’t realize how deeply that experience had embedded itself in the city’s psyche until I arrived.

Face masks are not uncommon even in outbreak-free times. And Hong Kongers easily remember to press elevator buttons with their keys rather than their fingertips because they have been doing so for years.

They stayed home when they could, and donned masks when they couldn’t. I met many new people in my first weeks in the city; none of them shook my hand. The first time I rode the subway after arriving, I could see down the entire length of the train, a forest of red subway poles with not a single person in sight.

Paradoxically, this longstanding vigilance and self-restraint have helped Hong Kong preserve some of itself, perhaps more successfully than other cities that have tried to cling to their pre-virus selves. Museums, schools and gyms closed here, but restaurants never had to, nor did hair salons or retail stores.

Still, in many ways it’s an illusion. In a city as dense as Hong Kong, even life at half-volume looks vibrant.

It’s the balance sheets that reveal the truth.

Hong Kong is deep in recession, having just recorded its biggest-ever economic contraction. Restaurants may have stayed open, but they’re floundering. One woman I interviewed in March had quit her job as a security guard to watch her children after schools were closed; they still have not reopened.

And, like everyone else in the world, Hong Kongers are tired.

Sometimes social distancing gets lip service. At a noodle shop two weeks ago, after the available tables filled up, a waitress deposited a stranger at the table where I was already sitting with two friends. “It’s OK, four people,” she said, referring to the government’s four-person limit on public gatherings. (It has since been raised to eight.)

And in Hong Kong, anyway, even the end of the outbreak may not bring true normalcy. Already, the pro-democracy protests that roiled the city for most of last year have begun rekindling, as people feel more comfortable gathering en masse. Many believe they will soon come roaring back.

So I may not know what real normal life — like, really real — looks like in Hong Kong for a while. But, increasingly, it feels as if that’s not so important, anyway.

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