Hong Kong is to significantly ease its coronavirus social distancing measures, upping the limit on public gatherings from eight to 50 people.

Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan made the announcement at a press conference on Tuesday following an Executive Council meeting in the morning. She said the restriction – which was set to expire on Thursday – will remain in place for 14 days.

Sophia Chan
Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

Starting on Friday, restaurants will be exempted from customer restrictions but will still have to comply with other disease regulations, such as a minimum 1.5-metre distance between tables and “effective” partitioning.

The group limit at karaoke premises and party rooms will also be upped from eight to 16 people.

Police have cited Covid-19 gathering restrictions when rejecting applications to hold public meetings and processions. This included a ban on the annual Tiananmen Massacre vigil for the first time in 30 years earlier this month.

The government has repeatedly dismissed accusations that it has extended the gathering ban for political reasons whilst slamming the claims as “unfounded.” It said it has adopted a “suppress and lift” strategy in which disease control measures are tightened or loosened according to pandemic developments.

Asked why the public gathering cap had been raised to 50, Chan said the government deemed it “acceptable” because it was the existing limit for wedding banquets and annual general meetings of companies under Cap. 599G. She added there were no “political considerations” involved.

“We have always adopted this ‘suppress and lift’ strategy. On the one hand, we want to strike a balance between public health protection, [the] economic impact as well as social acceptance,” she said.

“Our consideration is that now the general situation of the epidemic is relatively stable… we are trying to do more testing so we can understand more about the community situation.”

social distancing restaurant
A man is surrounded by empty tables at a restaurant. Photo: KH:)/United Social Press.

As of Monday, Hong Kong’s total number of infections reached 1,113 with one probable case and four deaths. Most of the recent cases were imported, however, the city also saw a cluster of locally transmitted infections related to a 34-year-old female employee of a Kerry Logistics warehouse in Kwai Chung, who was confirmed to have Covid-19 last month.

The gathering restriction was first introduced in late March when gatherings of more than four people, indoors and outdoors, were prohibited. It came amid a surge in infections as residents returned to Hong Kong from countries hit hard by the deadly virus. The cap was later raised to eight people in early May.

Additional reporting: Jennifer Creery

Ho Long Sze Kelly is a Hong Kong-based journalist covering politics, criminal justice, human rights, social welfare and education. As a Senior Reporter at Hong Kong Free Press, she has covered the aftermath of the 2019 extradition bill protests and the Covid-19 pandemic extensively, as well as documented the transformation of her home city under the Beijing-imposed national security law.

Kelly has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration. Prior to joining HKFP in 2020, she was on the frontlines covering the 2019 citywide unrest for South China Morning Post’s Young Post. She also covered sports and youth-related issues.