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    Thursday, May 30, 2024

    Hong Kong ends mask mandate, one of the world's last

    Hong Kong - one of the last holdouts in the world for legally mandated masking, indoors and outside or on public transportation - is dropping the last of its coronavirus restrictions starting Wednesday.

    Chief Executive John Lee on Tuesday announced the scrapping of the mask mandate as the pandemic "has been largely contained" with "no major spike in the number of cases so far." High-risk locations such as hospitals or homes for the elderly could still require visitors to keep masks on, he added.

    "With the masking requirement removed, we are starting to resume to normalcy comprehensively and that will be very beneficial to the economic development, our international competitiveness, as well as our activities which involve everyone in Hong Kong," Lee said.

    In January, there was much celebration when the border between Hong Kong and mainland China reopened, allowing families and couples to reunite after years of separation - albeit, at the time, while fully masked.

    Siddharth Sridhar, an infectious-disease expert at the University of Hong Kong, wrote in a public Facebook post Sunday that it was "reasonable" to make masks-wearing optional as the warmer weather offers "an additional bulwark against respiratory virus transmission."

    There is an "innate cognitive dissonance" in the current policy, he said, as people can take off masks in high-risk settings like restaurants, but have "to wear them outdoors where the chances of getting the virus is "negligible."

    The move to scrap the mandate comes as the government seeks to attract tourists and overseas workers to reinvigorate the formerly freewheeling international city. Earlier this month, Hong Kong unveiled a massive giveaway of a half-million plane tickets under the launch of a "Hello Hong Kong" tourism campaign, keen to signal that the city - which was largely shut down during the pandemic and 2019 pro-democracy protests - is ready to move on.

    Hong Kong's tough covid policies had, until last year, included lengthy hotel quarantines, flight bans, social distancing measures and limits on group gatherings. It later drew increasing criticisms from business leaders, who said the controls were driving talent away.

    Violating the mask mandate, which had been active for more than two years, could result in a heavy fine. Those found without a mask in public areas could be charged up to $1,275, and the police have regularly given out $637 fines for rule-breakers. At one point, masks were required when exercising.

    Hong Kong was a popular tourist destination in Asia in its heyday, before it was hit by a double whammy of political protests and the covid pandemic. In 2018, its visitor numbers reached a record-high 65.1 million. While visitor figures rebounded to more than 600,000 in 2022, they are still less than a hundredth of what they were in 2018.

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