Hong Kong Covid-19 cases hit daily peak, government orders face masks in indoor venues

Hong Kong will be expanding strict new social distancing measures. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG - The daily increase in new coronavirus infections in Hong Kong jumped on Wednesday (July 22), prompting regulators to mandate the public to wear face masks in all indoor public venues.

Hong Kong added 113 new Covid-19 cases, with the source of infections for about half of them unknown.

So far, the total tally stands at 2,132.

Of the new cases that include many teachers and hotel staff, 105 are local transmissions with 42 linked to earlier infections.

Health authorities said 27 of the patients caught the virus from having meals with family members and friends.

At a briefing, Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan said the new rule that would make it compulsory for people to wear face masks in indoor public venues like supermarkets, building lobbies and shopping malls, would kick in from Thursday for 14 days.

The move follows a special morning Executive Council meeting and is on top of the government's rule on July 15 for people to wear face masks when taking public transport, or risk a HK$5,000 (S$893) fine.

Professor Chan noted that more than 80 per cent of the 700 cases in the past two weeks have been due to local transmissions and the sources of infections for many are unknown.

While she does not rule out more stringent measures, Prof Chan did not indicate if Hong Kong would soon go into lockdown and cautioned that large-scale community outbreaks are likely.

"Whether there will be a lockdown depends on the entire situation. We are looking at some of the international practices and we also have to balance the needs and also the basic daily necessities of the people in Hong Kong, for example, food, having to seek medical attention, drugs and so these are essential services that people need," she said.

From next Wednesday (July 29), passengers heading to Hong Kong from the United States and Kazakhstan will have to present proof of a negative coronavirus test before they can board the plane.

They will also have to show that they have reserved a hotel room for at least 14 days upon their arrival in the city.

Currently, passengers arriving from places identified as high risk such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, India, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, and South Africa have to show proof of a negative nucleic acid test for Covid-19. This proof is to be obtained within 72 hours before their departure.

When asked if the Legislative Council election scheduled for Sept 6 would be postponed, Prof Chan said there is no change to this for the time being.

Earlier in the day, microbiologist Ho Pak Leung from Hong Kong University proposed that the government could make it mandatory for the public to wear face masks outdoors too.

He cautioned that it would take about five more days to see if existing social distancing measures have been effective in controlling the coronavirus outbreaks in the city.

A week ago, the government tightened restrictions with dining in at all eateries banned from 6pm to 5am and only takeaways allowed. The 50-person cap for public gatherings was also whittled down to four. Venues like gyms, bars, nightclubs were also ordered to shut for seven days.

Last week's tightening of social distancing measures came a week after an initial round when the operating capacity of all eateries was capped at 60 per cent and at eight customers per table.

The pandemic woes have hit Hong Kong's economy badly, with tourism and hospitality sectors almost at a standstill while retail related ones are limping, even as the government rolls out relief measures of unprecedented scale for various businesses.

The Hang Seng Index ended the day in the red - its biggest fall since June 11 - dropping 2.25 per cent or 577.72 points to 25,057.94 on Wednesday following a rally the previous day, with investors spooked by a record jump in infections that could mean even tighter restrictions.

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