Hong Kong is to close government-managed beaches again in a further tightening of social distancing measures, despite there being little evidence linking them to the spread of Covid-19 or any known cases of outbreaks internationally. Thursday’s closures come days after photos of busy Hong Kong beaches went viral on Chinese social media.

During her daily briefing on Wednesday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said that the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) may seal off beaches because revellers tend to forgo masks. “We don’t want to see people flock to beaches,” Lam said.

An image of Hong Kong beachgoers circulating on Chinese social media platform Weibo. Photo: Weibo.

Beaches operated by the LCSD were closed during the city’s third wave of Covid-19 in July 2020 and reopened in November, only to be sealed off again for another four months from December.

Although authorities have introduced the “most stringent” set of social distancing rules to date as the city battles its fifth and worst wave of outbreak, beaches have remained accessible in recent months. However, some facilities, including showers, toilets and changing rooms have been closed.

A Leisure and Cultural Services Department spokesperson said beaches will be closed “until further notice, in order to reduce crowd gatherings and the chances of virus transmission… The LCSD will strengthen the cordoning off of beaches to prevent the public from entering.”

Non-government managed beaches – generally those which do not have lifeguard towers – will not be affected by the new measure.

Siddharth Sridhar, a clinical assistant professor at the Department of Microbiology at the University of Hong Kong, told HKFP that Covid-19 transmission mainly occurs in crowded, indoor areas where people do not wear masks, such as restaurants. The infection risk is “much lower” in outdoor spaces, he said.

However, as Omicron was highly transmissible, “there is a chance” that infections could occur in crowded outdoor areas, Sridhar said. Still, the “relative risks of transmission” remained lower even in crowded outdoor areas than indoors, especially if people wore masks.

According to the microbiologist, the transmission risks were “still manageable” when an outdoor venue was relatively crowded, “unless it is very crowded like a concert.”

Sridhar said a “much more reasonable” approach would be to better enforce the gathering ban on beaches instead of completely sealing then off, as “people need to go out.” He said allowing people to go to these outdoor areas was important for their mental and physical well-being, as the fifth wave has brought anxiety to many in the city and Hong Kong’s housing conditions were crowded, as well.

Last year, Mark Woolhouse – an epidemiologist who advises the UK – said beach trips were among the safest things to do during the pandemic and that they have “never been linked to Covid outbreaks,” according to The Independent.

Beachgoers anger Chinese social media

Over the past weekend, many citizens flocked to beaches such as Shek O and Repulse Bay as the weather warmed up, despite the city continuing to report tens of thousands of Covid-19 infections daily.

Chinese social media users call out Hongkongers for going to the city’s beaches. Photo: Screenshot.

Photos of the city’s crowded beaches circulated widely on Chinese social media platforms and caused outrage among users. Many drew comparisons between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, the latter of which is undergoing a citywide lockdown and three rounds of universal testing after a surge in Covid-19 cases. Hongkongers were accused of “lying flat.”

As of Monday, Hong Kong has recorded 733,785 Covid-19 cases and 4,279 related fatalities.

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Peter Lee

Peter Lee is a reporter for HKFP. He was previously a freelance journalist at Initium, covering political and court news. He holds a Global Communication bachelor degree from CUHK.