Hong Kong ends Covid mask mandate after 945 days to focus on economy

Hong Kong will drop its mask mandate on Wednesday, lifting its last major restriction to contain Covid-19 as the government seeks to revive the city as a financial hub after more than two and a half years of pandemic controls.

John Lee, Hong Kong’s chief executive, announced on Tuesday that the measure, which was imposed in July 2020 and enforced with HK$5,000 (US$640) fines, would be scrapped in order to draw businesses and tourists back to the city.

“We think this is the best time to make this decision. It is a clear message to show Hong Kong is resuming normalcy,” said Lee, formerly the city’s top cop. “We will focus on our economy and the city’s development this year and the next after resuming normalcy.”

Hong Kong had become a global outlier on pandemic controls, only beginning to unwind its strict Covid policies in December and maintaining a mask mandate far longer than other countries in the region, many of which observed widespread mask-wearing even without a legal requirement.

Macau, a Chinese territory adjacent to Hong Kong, dropped its outdoor and indoor mask mandate on Monday, while Taiwan, which stopped requiring masks outdoors in November, dropped them for indoor use this month as well. Japan, which never imposed an official mask mandate, announced that it would ease guidelines earlier this month.

“With the lifting of the mask mandate, we have now officially removed all anti-epidemic restrictions,” said health secretary Lo Chung-mau. “Hong Kong has fully returned to normalcy. We can all put a smile on our faces.”

From Wednesday, Hong Kong residents will no longer be required to wear face coverings outdoors as well as indoors and on public transport, though masks will still be required in hospitals and recommended in elderly care homes.

Stocks of Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s flag carrier, rose as much as 2.6 per cent on Tuesday before paring gains, while local cosmetics retailer Sa Sa registered a 5.2 per cent jump by early afternoon.

“This step effectively [symbolises] the end of an era for masks in Asia,” said Iris Pang, chief greater China economist at ING. “We are finally reconnected with the world.”

Hong Kong’s economy was crippled by Covid restrictions after the city followed mainland China in imposing tight curbs that included banning tourists and requiring overseas arrivals to quarantine for up to three weeks. Hong Kong’s gross domestic product declined 3.5 per cent last year, its second full-year contraction during the pandemic.

Along with a security crackdown that followed pro-democracy protests in 2019, the rules undermined the city’s status as a financial hub, driving an exodus of businesses, expatriates and residents.

Hong Kong’s government was initially slow to impose mask wearing, having previously invoked colonial-era emergency powers to ban face coverings in October 2019 after protesters wore them to avoid surveillance. Residents, heeding the lessons of the 2003 Sars outbreak, started wearing masks against official advice before the mandate came into place in July 2020.

Carrie Lam, the city’s unpopular former leader, even encouraged officials not to wear masks at one point in the pandemic, citing supply shortages.

Hong Kong recorded about 499,000 visitors in January after dropping border restrictions and resuming quarantine-free travel with mainland China, compared with 6.8mn the same month in 2019.


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