HONG KONG - The Hong Kong government on Tuesday (Aug 25) extended the city's strict social distancing rules for another two days, but will ease some restrictions from Friday, as local Covid-19 transmissions declined in the past few weeks.
Unless there are drastic changes to the epidemic situation in the next two days, dining-in services at eateries will be extended from the current 6pm to 9pm from Friday for a week, with each table capped at two patrons.
Some businesses previously ordered to shut, including cinemas, beauty parlours and some sports premises, will also be allowed to re-open.
The mandatory mask-wearing rule stays but people exercising in parks will be allowed exemptions, as well as those engaging in strenuous exercise in outdoor spaces.
The announcement on Tuesday came as the social distancing rules - the strictest so far in the city's efforts against the coronavirus - were to expire at midnight.
Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan said the number of daily cases has dropped but stressed that the city is not out of the woods yet.
Professor Chan urged residents not to let their guard down and encouraged people to take up the free universal community testing for Covid-19 to be rolled out by the government from Sept 1.
Earlier in the day, Chief Executive Carrie Lam hit back at health experts who criticised the universal testing programme - a move she said is politically motivated.
In recent days, some medical professionals have raised doubts about the effectiveness of the free tests that would be carried out with the help of a medical team from the mainland.
The critics noted that the tests would not contain the outbreak and might raise the prospects of transmissions through the mass exercise.
Speaking ahead of the weekly Executive Council meeting, Mrs Lam said: "As far as universal communal testing is concerned, we are not cramming it into a single day. We have allowed ourselves up to two weeks to invite members of the community to come forward for the testing.
"Secondly, we are going to do an online booking system. So preferably we won't be seeing crowds or long queues in front of the swabbing stations to have the test done," she added.
The announcement to ease rules comes on the back of fewer new infections in the city's third wave of the pandemic.
Hong Kong's confirmed daily Covid-19 tally has steadily declined from the highs of more than 100 three weeks ago to Monday's nine new infections. Of the nine, seven were local transmissions.
It recorded 19 new infections on Tuesday, of which 16 were local cases, bringing the total tally to 4,710, including over 70 deaths.
Separately, organisers of the Hong Kong Book Fair, which was postponed last month due to the third wave of coronavirus, announced that the event will go ahead from Dec 16 to 22 at the Convention and Exhibition Centre.
On Monday, University of Hong Kong researchers said they have documented the world's first confirmed case of coronavirus re-infection, with genetic sequencing showing different strains of the virus.
The 33-year-old man, who works in IT, recovered from Covid-19 in April only to test positive again this month after returning to Hong Kong from a Spain trip.
Researchers noted that patients who get re-infected can spread the virus to others and make the containment of the pandemic harder.