Hong Kong to ease Covid-19 rules from April 21

Under the eased coronavirus restrictions, dine-in services at restaurants will be extended to 10pm, from 6pm currently.

HONG KONG - Hong Kong will relax its strict social distancing measures from April 21, the authorities announced on Thursday (April 14), as the city seeks to bring its economy back on track following its fifth and worst wave of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Under the loosened restrictions, dine-in services at restaurants will be extended to 10pm, from 6pm currently, and up to four diners will be allowed at each table, from the current two. 

There can be up to four people at public gatherings, from two now, and a ban on private gatherings involving more than two households will be lifted. 

Premises including gyms, beauty salons, massage parlours, museums, cinemas, religious places, libraries, playgrounds and sports venues can reopen, but must run at only half their capacity. 

Bars will remain closed, however, as will public beaches, pools and barbecue sites.

Cinema patrons can eat and drink in the theatres if the cinema operator requires all staff and customers to have had three shots of a Covid-19 vaccine. 

This criterion does not apply to those medically exempted from vaccination, children aged under 12, and people who have recovered from Covid-19 in the past three months. 

Banquets can accommodate up to 20 people at a time, and staff of restaurants and catering services will have to undergo Covid-19 rapid antigen tests every three days. 

Local tours can resume as well, subject to limits of 30 people, as long as employees have received three vaccine doses. 

Tour groups can be expanded to 100 people if all participants are required to take rapid antigen tests on the first day of the tour. 

People will continue to have to wear masks at all times, including while exercising outdoors.

The easing of the social distancing measures across Hong Kong comes after months of strict restrictions aimed at bringing the citys pandemic situation under control.

The loosening of the restrictions was announced at Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s daily Covid-19 press briefing on Thursday. 

Some business premises have been closed for more than 200 days, with their operations having been dealt “a very heavy blow”, Mrs Lam said. 

These included gyms and cinemas that have been shut for more than 260 days. 

With the government having “balanced different considerations”, now is an appropriate time to relax the measures imposed on such businesses, she said. 

“It is a question of meeting the aspirations of Hong Kong people,” added Mrs Lam. “It is not simply just a public health issue. We have to take into account social and economic needs as well.”

But she warned: “Any measure that enables Hong Kong to resume normal operations will inevitably bring risks of transmission... Please comply with the social distancing measures still effective at the moment and please be vigilant when it comes to infection control.”

Hong Kong reported 1,043 new Covid-19 infections on Thursday, including its first case of the new Omicron sub-variant BA.5, and 54 virus-related deaths.

The number of new daily cases - the fewest logged since Feb 10 - is down from a daily high of more than 50,000 in early March, indicating that the fifth wave of outbreak has tapered off.

The authorities said the city is past the peak of its Omicron outbreak that has infected around 1.2 million people and killed more than 9,000.

They have previously said that the social distancing rules would be eased in three phases over three months, from April 21, if the pandemic situation improved.

The tight restrictions have badly affected businesses across the city, contributing to a net outflow of about 70,000 people in February and March, up from about 17,000 in December.

Earlier in the week, Mrs Lam announced that schools would resume in-person classes after the Easter holidays, which start on Friday and end on Monday. 

Students, teachers and staff at schools will have to take rapid tests every day; positive cases will be reported to the health department. 

The Chief Executive said the situation at schools would then be reviewed in a few weeks.

On Tuesday, the health authorities revealed that they had yet to abandon a plan to test the city’s entire population. 

The plan had been indefinitely postponed since early March as Hong Kong shifted its focus to vaccinating the elderly and lowering its fatality rate amid a sudden onslaught of Covid-19 cases. 

The exact timing of the compulsory universal testing drive would depend on how the pandemic situation progresses in the city, the authorities said. 

Mrs Lam has also said that Hong Kong would not halt its practice of suspending airlines whose flights have been found to carry passengers who test positive for Covid-19. 

Lowering the number of Covid-19 infections imported from abroad remains an important part of the government’s strategy to beat the virus, she said.

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