Hong Kong implements tough coronavirus measures as it warns city on verge of large outbreak

People wearing face masks cross an intersection in Hong Kong on July 27, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

HONG KONG (REUTERS, AFP) - Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam has warned the city is on the brink of a large-scale outbreak of the coronavirus and urged people to stay indoors as much as possible as strict new measures to curb the disease's spread take effect on Wednesday (July 29).

The new regulations ban gatherings of more than two people, close dining in restaurants and make the wearing of face masks mandatory in public places, including outdoors. Those who breach the rules face fines of up to HK$5,000 (S$890).

These are the toughest measures introduced in the city since the outbreak.

The government has also tightened testing and quarantine arrangements for sea and air crew members, effective on Wednesday.

"We are on the verge of a large-scale community outbreak, which may lead to a collapse of our hospital system and cost lives, especially of the elderly," Mrs Lam said in a statement late on Tuesday (July 28).

"In order to protect our loved ones, our healthcare staff and Hong Kong, I appeal to you to follow strictly the social distancing measures and stay at home as far as possible."

The new measures, which will be in place for at least seven days, were announced on Monday after the global financial hub saw a spike in locally transmitted cases over the past three weeks.

On Tuesday, Hong Kong reported 106 new coronavirus cases, including 98 that were locally transmitted. Since late January, more than 2,880 people have been infected in the former British colony, 23 of whom have died.

During their lunch break on Wednesday, many residents were eating takeaway meals outside in the intense summer heat and humidity.

"It's so hot outside now," a construction worker, who gave his surname as Chow, told AFP as he tucked into a pork chop in an alcove outside a department store.

"Ten minutes after I start work, my shirt is all sweaty," he said, adding he missed the air conditioning of restaurants.

Hong Kong has some of the world's smallest and most expensive apartments. Some residents barely have a kitchen to cook in, making them hugely reliant on cheap eateries.

The finance hub was one of the first places hit by the coronavirus when it emerged from China at the start of the year. It initially had remarkable success in controlling the outbreak - helped in part by a health-conscious public embracing face masks and an efficient track and trace programme, forged in the fires of the deadly Sars virus in 2003.

By June, local transmission had all but ended. But the virus later sneaked back into the city and began spreading.

Health officials have been scrambling to uncover the source of the latest outbreak. Some have blamed exemptions from the usual 14-day quarantine that the government granted to "essential personnel", including cross-boundary truckers, air and sea crew and some manufacturing executives.

The government has since tightened restrictions for some of those groups.

Gladys Chan, who was taking her lunch break, said she felt the government had not done enough to monitor those with exemptions.

"I think the government has failed us, especially with this third wave of the pandemic," she told AFP, adding the latest measures were "too little, too late".

As isolation wards fill up, authorities have announced plans to build a temporary 2,000-bed field hospital near the city's airport, something Chinese authorities have offered to help with.

The latest lockdown measures are a new body blow for a city that was already mired in recession thanks to the US-China trade war and months of political unrest last year.

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