Hong Kong lifts city-wide mask mandate after nearly three years

HONG KONG — After nearly three years, Hong Kong said it will scrap its mask mandate starting March 1, lifting one of the longest pandemic restrictions worldwide as the city tries to rebuild its image as an international financial center.

The city’s chief executive, John Lee, announced the move Tuesday, lifting a ban that had been criticized by some health experts for requiring people to wear masks in public places at all times, except during exercise and in country parks, even as most Covid-19 restrictions had been gradually dismantled in recent months.

Masks will no longer be required either indoors, outdoors or on public transport, Mr Lee said. “The Covid epidemic in Hong Kong is under control with no sign of a major recovery,” Lee said, adding that there has been no outbreak among high-risk groups, such as people in hospitals, and that the flu season is coming to an end. Premises deemed high-risk can still impose their own rules and require visitors to wear a mask, he said.

In recent weeks, the city has reopened its border with mainland China in an effort to restart an economy that shrank 3.5% last year. The city was also affected by long-standing strict quarantine rules for arrivals, which were lifted in the autumn.

Mr. Lee and his top ministers have also begun traveling internationally to court global political and business leaders, including to the Gulf nations and the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos. The city, whose economy also depended on tourism before Covid, this month launched a campaign to bring back visitors by giving away half a million plane tickets.

Masks are still worn in some places in South Korea and Japan.

While South Korea lifted its indoor mask mandate on January 30, citing a downward trend in infections, masks are still required in hospitals and pharmacies and when using public transport. The government still recommends that masks be used indoors.

On March 13, Japan plans to lift government guidelines that have recommended wearing masks indoors, although it will still recommend masks in higher-risk situations such as crowded trains. The guidelines were never mandatory, but most have followed them.

Hong Kong authorities ended the mask mandate “at the right time” as the city’s weather warms after riding out the winter flu wave, said Siddharth Sridhar, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong.

During the pandemic, some flagship conferences and events in finance and banking moved from Hong Kong to nearby rival Singapore, allowing attendees to avoid the city’s Covid rules. Officials in Hong Kong were long caught between adhering to strict pandemic controls in mainland China and giving in to demands from international businesses that the city join other developed economies in living with the virus. China has since swept away its zero-Covid curbs.

Hong Kong made wearing masks mandatory in public places indoors or outdoors almost three years ago. Before the mandate, people there were among the earliest in the world to wear masks, before the pandemic spread globally.

When news broke that a new respiratory disease had been discovered in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the 2003 SARS outbreak was still a vivid memory for many in Hong Kong. Stores in the city ran out of masks even as US health officials recommended using them for prevention. Long lines were seen around Hong Kong for days as people lined up at shops, which sold them in rationed quantities.

Health authorities later introduced tough measures during most of the pandemic, which included flight suspensions, bans on gatherings and mandatory Covid testing, which kept the number of infections low during the first two years of the pandemic.

Early last year, a major outbreak in Hong Kong led to one of the world’s highest Covid-19 death rates, highlighting the shortcomings of the rules that proved unable to keep out the highly contagious Omicron variant.

The effects of the outbreak fell disproportionately on the city’s large number of elderly, unvaccinated residents, causing many hospitals to be overwhelmed with patients. Hong Kong authorities recorded more than 2.8 million Covid infections and 13,000 deaths by the end of January, according to official data.

Most neighboring regions, including mainland China, have removed virtually all Covid restrictions and requirements to wear a mask outdoors. Mask-wearing requirements in most public places in the gambling enclave of Macau were lifted on Monday, except for public transport, hospitals and nursing homes.

Write to Selina Cheng at selina.cheng@wsj.com

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