Fresh from the protest frontlines, HKFP’s May James has been roving around Hong Kong during the coronavirus outbreak, capturing how the city which survived SARS is coping with being one of the first territories hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.

A scene at the normally  busy financial district of Hong Kong at around 6pm on May 4. Photo: May James/HKFP.

Coronavirus struck Hong Kong just as it was reeling from non-stop pro-democracy protests and unrest. The epidemic grew from fewer than 100 confirmed coronavirus cases at the start of March to almost 800 by the end of the month. Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s administration finally closed the mainland border to all non-residents on March 25. The authorities then enacted what would become the first set of social distancing laws on March 27, in response to a massive spike in infections and signs of a community outbreak.

The population of Hong Kong is over 7.4 million. Covering a mere 427 square miles (1,110 square kilometres)  in area. A view of Hong Kong from Lion Rock Peak on March 22, 2020. Photo: May James/HKFP.

Covid-19 was first detected in China’s Hubei province last December and has infected more than 26 million people, causing more than 800,000 deaths across almost every country, according to research conducted by the Johns Hopkins University. Hong Kong had reported almost 5,000 cases and almost 100 deaths by September.

Around 1,800 passengers were allowed to disembark on February 9 after completing a test with negative results for the novel coronavirus. Thousands of people were quarantined for five days inside the 151,000-tonne World Dream cruise ship, docked at the Kai Tak cruise terminal in Hong Kong after being denied entry into Taiwan after a few passengers were found to be infected with coronavirus symptoms. Photo: May James/HKFP.
An empty street in the usually bustling drinking area of Lan Kwai Fong, in Hong Kong on April 5, after the city’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam ordered the city’s bars to close as part of measures to help stop the spread of COVID-19. Photo: May James/HKFP.

Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan had said that the government was implementing a “suppress-and-lift” strategy to fight the virus. “We have to look at what numbers are acceptable or what risk is acceptable,” she said. “It is a gradual lifting, a gradual paving the way.”

Some chairs are taken out to enforce social distancing measures as seen in a cafe during the coronavirus pandemic in Hong Kong on April 7, with a ban on gatherings of more than four people at public venues. Restaurants were required to only serve half their capacity of customers, and all tables needed to be separated by at least 1.5 metres. Photo: May James/HKFP.
Security tape is used at a children’s playground during the coronavirus pandemic to stop public use. The government’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) closed public recreational and sporting facilities to curb the spread of COVID-19. Photo: May James/HKFP.
Plastic barriers are used in the middle of tables to enforce social distancing, as seen in a restaurant during the coronavirus pandemic in Hong Kong on April 7. Since March 29, people together in groups of more than four in a public place, either indoors or outdoors, have been liable to a maximum fine of up to HK$25,000 and six months in prison. Photo: May James/HKFP.
Basketball nets are blocked and the court is fenced with security tape to stop public use during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: May James/HKFP.

The announcement came at a time when the coronavirus situation in the city was, as she put it, “rather stable.” By late June, Hong Kong had recorded close to 1,200 cases of Covid-19 and seven fatalities. But, since then, a third wave has hit the city, stabilising only in late August as Hongkongers were offered free public testing.

A boy wears a face mask as a precaution while riding a scooter by the waterfront of Tsim Sha Tsui district in Hong Kong. Photo: May James/HKFP.
Inside an MTR train on a Saturday. Photo: May James/HKFP.
People wear face masks as a precautionary measure during peak hours inside the MTR station on June 16. Photo: May James/HKFP.

Hong Kong’s social distancing measures have long been criticised for their role in clamping down on protests, with apparent inconsistencies in enforcement. 

Since March, police have regularly used group assembly prohibitions on gatherings as a legal means to deter protesters — in many cases issuing fines before the street protests materialised.

Police taking a break near an orange cordon line. Since May 5, people together in groups of more than eight in a public place, either indoors or outdoors, have been liable to a maximum fine of up to HK$25,000 and six months in prison. Photo May James/HKFP.
Church gathering on a Sunday seen during the protest against racism and in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement on June 7, 2020 in Hong Kong. Organisers called off the rally late Saturday because of the city”s coronavirus restrictions. Those that showed up gathered in groups of eight, responding to the limit imposed on public gatherings. Photo: May James/HKFP.
Police stand guard outside Prince Edward MTR station during a memorial ceremony of the August 31, 2019 incident. Photo: May James/HKFP.
A maximum of 8 people were allowed during the commemoration of the the August 31, 2019 incident on May 31, 2020. Photo: May James/HKFP.
Police filming during a rally outside of the Consulate General of the United States to protest against racism and in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. Organisers called off the rally late Saturday because of the city’s coronavirus restrictions. Those who still showed up gathered in groups of eight, the limit on the size of public gatherings. Photo: May James/HKFP.

The authorities have also been criticised for inconsistently enforcing the law, with social media showing images of crowds of unmasked people packed on the streets of the trendy Soho food and beverage district.

People gathering at a bar in Wanchai district. Photo: May James/HKFP.

“It is ironic, considering that [the police] are trying to enforce social distancing, and yet they came for 15 minutes and left,” said Marguerite, a customer at a bar on Peel Street in May. 

She contrasted it to the situation at Victoria Park during the June 4 vigil, where police warned the public against gathering to commemorate the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

A popular drinking area in Central on a Friday. Photo: May James/HKFP.

The government ban on public gatherings of more than eight was increased to gatherings of 50 people on June 16, only to be reduced to two people a fortnight later.

A bustling drinking area of Central on Friday May 29. Photo: May James/HKFP.

A bar owner said that he saw the police had set up an orange cordon line to separate the crowds, but the effects were only temporary. “They quashed the crowd, but after half an hour everybody came back,” he said on June 27.



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