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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Hong Kong, one of world’s last holdouts, ends its mask mandate

People walk in the center of Hong Kong, on June 15, 2022. Hong Kong’s leader said on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2023, that the city would lift its mask mandate, one of the last such policies in the world, as it continues to wind down its once-stringent Covid control measures.

By Tiffany May

Hong Kong’s leader said Tuesday that the city would lift its mask mandate, one of the last such policies in the world, effectively ending what had been one of the pandemic’s strictest COVID-19 regimes.

“Evidence shows that the coronavirus is under control in Hong Kong, without major signs of rebound,” Chief Executive John Lee said at a news briefing.

Starting Wednesday, people in Hong Kong will no longer be required to wear masks indoors, outdoors or on public transportation, though facilities like hospitals and nursing homes can still require them, Lee said. Under the mandate, which took effect in July 2020, people who failed to wear masks in public could be fined about $635.

Hong Kong’s tough COVID controls, which until last year also included limits on group gatherings, flight bans and long hotel quarantines, were criticized by business leaders and others, who said they were needlessly damaging people’s livelihoods, as well as the city’s status as a finance center and a tourist destination. Macao, the nearby gambling hub, which like Hong Kong is a Chinese territory, ended its outdoor mask mandate Monday.

“With the removal of the mask mandate, Hong Kong will return to normal all around, and in this year and the coming year will go all out for the economy and development at full speed,” Lee said.

Hong Kong largely avoided mass outbreaks in the first two years of the pandemic by imposing tight border controls and social distancing policies, in an attempt to bring its caseload as close to zero as possible. But those measures could not contain the spread of the more contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus as 2022 began. Thousands died, many of them seniors who had not been vaccinated.

The controls, which changed frequently and with little warning, came at a heavy cost to residents and contributed to an exodus from the city. Schools were closed for months on end, residents of nursing homes were denied visitors, and restaurants and bars saw their hours restricted or had to shut entirely. Overall, Hong Kong’s economy contracted 6.1% in 2020; it rebounded in 2021, but shrank again in 2022.

Hoping to revive tourism, the city recently announced plans to give away half a million plane tickets to foreign visitors, and authorities have continued to roll back the remaining restrictions. In recent days, officials announced that visitors to hospitals and nursing homes would no longer have to show PCR test results, and that starting in March, students would not be required to take daily rapid antigen tests before attending school.

Health Secretary Chung-mau Lo said the government would recommend that people who are immunocompromised or have upper respiratory issues continue to wear masks. But like Lee, he said the end of the mandate signified a return to normalcy. “Everyone can show their smiles and say, ‘Hello, Hong Kong,’” he said, repeating the city’s new tourism slogan.

Siddharth Sridhar, a clinical virologist at the University of Hong Kong, noted that when the virus began spreading in the city in early 2020, its residents almost universally wore masks, even before they became mandatory. He added that while well-fitting masks were highly effective in hospital settings, they were often removed in crowded restaurants and at home, limiting the protection they provided when community transmission was widespread.

“Mask mandates stretching for years on end are going to run out of steam in terms of how effective they are,” Sridhar said. “People deserve choice in terms of how they are protecting themselves, and they have been doing this since the very first days of the pandemic, and they are going to continue to do that.”

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