By Jessie Yeung and Kathleen Magramo, CNN
One of the last major international cities requiring face coverings on Tuesday announced it will end its controversial Covid mask mandate nearly three years after it was enacted to prevent the spread of the virus.
The rule came into effect for public transport 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 reports of coronavirus infections spread, leading to panic buying and shortages as early as January that year.
The mandate will be fully lifted on Wednesday, the city’s leader John Lee said at a news briefing Tuesday — 959 days since the transport rule was imposed.
“We are now returning to normalcy,” 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-starved residents, overseas family members and struggling local businesses.
Speaking at the same news briefing Tuesday, Health Secretary Lo Mau-chung said 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 advises the wearing of masks in “high risk” settings such as elderly care homes and hospitals.
Most other places in Asia have either fully or partially eased their mask mandates in recent months, including South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.
The World Health Organization still recommends health workers wear masks, with Maria Van Kerkhove, technical lead of WHO’s Covid response, warning that the virus was “circulating pretty much 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 most stringent pandemic policies — 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 shut.
Authorities had argued the isolation period was necessary to reduce imported cases and stamp out local transmission — previously one of the benchmarks necessary to reopen the city’s border with mainland China, which had adhered to a strict zero-Covid policy until it abruptly reopened at the end of last year.
The mask mandate, too, drew criticism at times; in July 2020, during the peak of Hong Kong’s humid and sweltering summer, the government expanded the mandate to require masks even when exercising outdoors. It backtracked just weeks later amid public outcry, acknowledging that people had “shied away from exercising” due to 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, dropping the legal mandate is well past due,” said Karen Grepin, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health.
“People can now do their own risk assessment to determine if they want to wear one or not.”
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