Hong Kong (CNN) — One of the last major international cities to require people to wear masks announced Tuesday it was ending its controversial Covid-19 mask mandate nearly three years after the initiative to prevent the spread of the virus was enacted.
Hong Kong’s mandate, which if not complied with imposed fines that could reach more than US$1,000, required the use of masks in all public spaces.
The rule went into effect for public transportation on July 15, 2020, and was expanded two weeks later to include indoor and outdoor areas, though the vast majority of people in the city had begun wearing masks months earlier as they spread. reports of coronavirus infections, leading to panic buying and mask shortages in January of that year.
The mandate will be fully lifted on Wednesday, city leader John Lee said at a news conference on Tuesday, 959 days since the rule on public transportation was imposed.
“Now we are getting back to normal,” Lee said, as the Asian financial hub launches a big push to welcome business travelers and tourists.
The use of masks in Hong Kong
Hong Kong has rolled back several other major controls in recent months, notably a mandatory quarantine for all international arrivals, a move welcomed by travel-hungry residents who had relatives abroad and whose local businesses were struggling.
Speaking at the same press conference on Tuesday, Health Secretary Lo Mau-chung said that with the lifting of the mask mandate, “we have now removed all epidemic restrictions.”
“I hope to see a smile on everyone’s face now,” he said. However, he added, the government still recommends the use of masks in “high-risk” settings, such as nursing homes and hospitals.
Most other places in Asia have fully or partially eased their mask mandates in recent months, including South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.
The World Health Organization still recommends that health workers wear masks, and Maria Van Kerkhove, technical lead for WHO’s response to Covid, warned that the virus was “circulating virtually unchecked around the world at this time.” ”.
Throughout much of the pandemic, Hong Kong held the unenviable title of having some of the world’s strictest pandemic policies, including strict quarantine, which at one point required up to 21 days of isolation in a hotel room, with no visitors allowed. and the windows locked.
Authorities had argued that the isolation period was necessary to reduce imported cases and end local transmission, previously one of the benchmarks needed to reopen the city’s border with mainland China, which had adhered to a strict policy. from zero covid until it abruptly reopened at the end of 2022.
The mask mandate also drew criticism at times: In July 2020, during the peak of Hong Kong’s sweltering and humid summer, the government expanded the mandate to require masks even when exercising outdoors. He backed down just a few weeks later amid public outcry, acknowledging that people had “refrained from exercising” because of the rule.
“Face masks have played an important role in reducing community transmission in Hong Kong, but now that almost everyone is vaccinated and most people have also been infected, abandoning the legal mandate is long overdue,” Karen Grepin said. , Associate Professor at the University of Hong Kong School of Public Health.
“People can now do their own risk assessment to determine if they want to wear a mask or not.”