The government of Hong Kong announced that Hongkongers can finally remove their face masks when going out.
The mask mandate that lasted nearly 1,000 days has been lifted. It ends the mask-wearing requirement indoors, outdoors, and on public transport. The mandate has been a global relic, and Hong Kong was one of the last places to enforce it, with violators facing hefty fines.
Lawmakers, tourism experts, and public health experts increasingly challenged the mandate. Kwok Kin-on, an associate professor of public health at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, called masking unneeded. Tiffany, a finance industry employee in her 20s, was among the many Hongkongers who celebrated the change. “I’m ready to get rid of this. It costs money to buy masks, and I have had Covid myself.”, she said.
However, not everyone is ready to remove their masks. An anonymous Hongkonger said he would wait to ensure there is no rebound of infections after Hong Kong restored travel across its border with mainland China this month. “The mask is like a part of my body. If I stop wearing it, it’ll take a bit of getting used to,” he said.
Hong Kong aims to revive its recession-hit economy by wooing back tourists and overseas talent. “With the masking requirement removed, we are starting (to resume) normalcy… And that will be very beneficial to economic development,” said Chief Executive John Lee at a press conference.
Lee said he would leave high-risk venues like hospitals and elderly care homes to make their own masking policies. The public hospitals operator said patients, visitors, and staff would still need to wear surgical masks before entering government-run health facilities.
Hong Kong followed a version of China’s zero-Covid model until Beijing’s abrupt pivot from the hallmark containment policy in December. The nearly three-year pandemic isolation and virus restrictions further damaged an already-reeling economy.
Taiwan, Macau, Singapore, and South Korea have all lifted mask mandates recently. Hong Kong issued more than 22,000 tickets for mask violations, collecting HK$111.56 million in fines by the end of 2022.
The return of tourism?
Lee’s recently announced “Hello, Hong Kong” campaign welcomed travellers with “no isolation, no quarantine, and no restrictions.” Maskless dancers in the campaign’s promotional video faced criticism online for distorting the reality. Hong Kongers felt it was inapproriate when face coverings were ubiquitous and enforced with fines of up to HK$10,000 ($1,275).
Public health experts warn that vigilance is still necessary. However, they see the end of the mask mandate is seen as a positive step towards normalcy. With new variants emerging and vaccination rates still relatively low in some parts of the world, it’s crucial to continue to practice basic health measures like washing hands, social distancing, and wearing masks when in crowded indoor spaces or on public transport.