One of the last major international cities to require face coverings announced Tuesday that it will end its controversial Covid mask mandate nearly three years after it was enacted to prevent the spread of the virus.
Hong Kong’s mandate, enforced through fines that could reach more than $1,000, had required face coverings in all public spaces.
The rule went into effect on public transport on 15 July 2020 and was extended two weeks later to include indoor and outdoor areas – even though the vast majority of people in the city had started wearing masks months earlier as reports of coronavirus infections spread, which led to panic buying and shortages as early as January of the same year.
The mandate will be completely lifted Wednesday, City Manager John Lee said at a news briefing Tuesday — 959 days since the transportation rule was enacted.
“We are now returning to normality,” Lee said, as the Asian financial hub launches a major push to welcome back business travelers and tourists.
Hong Kong has rolled back several other major controls in recent months, most notably mandatory quarantine for all international arrivals, a move celebrated by travel-hungry residents, foreign family members and struggling local businesses.
Health Secretary Lo Mau-chung said at the same news briefing on Tuesday that with the lifting of the mask mandate, “we have now removed all epidemic restrictions.”
“I’m looking forward to seeing a smile on everyone’s face now,” he said. However, he added, the government still recommends the use of masks in “high-risk” environments such as aged care homes and hospitals.
Most other places in Asia have either fully or partially relaxed mask mandates in recent months, including South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.
The World Health Organization is still recommending that health workers wear masks, with Maria Van Kerkhove, technical lead for the WHO’s Covid response, warning that the virus was “circulating largely unchecked around the world at the moment”.
For much of the pandemic, Hong Kong held the unenviable title of having some of the world’s strictest pandemic guidelines – such as the 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 eradicate local transmission – previously one of the benchmarks needed to reopen the city’s border with mainland China, which had adhered to a strict zero-Covid policy until it abruptly opened again at the end of last year.
The mask mandate also attracted criticism at times; in July 2020, during the peak of Hong Kong’s humid and sweltering summer, the government extended the mandate to require masks even when exercising outdoors. It backed down just weeks later amid public outcry, acknowledging that people had “shunned exercise” 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 have also been infected, dropping the legal mandate is well overdue,” said Karen Grepin, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong School of Public Health.
“People can now do their own risk assessment to decide whether they want to use one or not.”