The international rugby event Hong Kong Sevens has returned to the city for the first time since 2019, with spectators saying it felt “surreal” to be surrounded by crowds who were allowed to remove their face masks while eating and drinking in the stadium amid Covid-19 curbs.

Spectators photographed on November 4, 2022, the first day of the Hong Kong Sevens. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Friday marked the first time in more than three years that the Hong Kong Stadium in Causeway Bay was filled with thousands of feverish fans for the Hong Kong leg of the World Rugby Sevens Series, which saw multiple cancellations and postponements owing to Covid-19.

Australia (yellow and green) plays against Hong Kong on November 4, 2022, the first day of the Hong Kong Sevens. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

People showed up in vibrant, eye-catching costumes and brought flags of their favourite teams to the venue, where they had to scan the LeaveHomeSafe Vaccine Pass and present a negative rapid antigen test result before entry. Under current Covid-19 restrictions, the stadium was allowed to be filled up to 85 per cent capacity, meaning more than 30,000 spectators could be admitted.

Spectators photographed on November 4, 2022, the first day of the Hong Kong Sevens. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Despite event staff walking around the stadium with signs asking people to wear a mask, most of the crowd were mask-free as they ate and drank while watching the matches.

Spectators photographed on November 4, 2022, the first day of the Hong Kong Sevens. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

It was a scene that spectators Mayura and Deeva found hard to believe in Hong Kong, where strict anti-epidemic measures – including an outdoor mask mandate – have been in place for more than two years.

Spectators photographed on November 4, 2022, the first day of the Hong Kong Sevens. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

“It feels surreal. We have to pinch ourselves [to realise] that we are in Hong Kong,” Mayura told HKFP.

Her daughter Deeva said she felt the same: “It is so strange in Hong Kong to see everyone without a mask.”

Hong Kong Sevens 2022 staff members holds a sign asking spectators to wear a mask. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

It was her second time watching the Hong Kong Sevens, Mayura said. While she did not follow the sevens circuit closely, it was “the vibe” that drew her to the jamboree. She said the atmosphere inside the stadium was very different than what she experienced daily in the city, with fewer social distancing measures where people did not seem to be worried about the pandemic.

Samoa (blue) plays against New Zealand (black) on November 4, 2022, the first day of the Hong Kong Sevens. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

“There was no more fear in people’s minds… It feels good to see Hong Kong coming back, slowly and steadily. We are getting there,” she said.

Spectators photographed on November 4, 2022, the first day of the Hong Kong Sevens. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

The Hong Kong Sevens is the first major outdoor international tournament the city has hosted since it was hit by the pandemic in 2020. Chief Executive John Lee on Friday said he was confident the occasion would be a success, adding that different major events would “come one after another.”

Great Britain (red) plays against France (blue) on November 4, 2022, the first day of the Hong Kong Sevens. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Police stepped up security deployment around the Hong Kong Stadium on Friday, with dozens of uniformed and plainclothes officers on standby. The Force’s Regional Commander of Hong Kong Island Kenneth Kwok was also present outside the venue, along with traffic police who directed pedestrians and spectators as roads in the area were closed or diverted.

Hong Kong police officers on stand by in the Hong Kong Stadium on November 4, 2022, the first day of the Hong Kong Sevens. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Friday’s highlight match between Hong Kong and World Series champion Australia brought many fans to their feet. The crowd showed support for the home favourite, waving the Hong Kong flag and filling the stadium with roaring chants of “let’s go Hong Kong.”

Australia (yellow and green) plays against Hong Kong on November 4, 2022, the first day of the Hong Kong Sevens. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

But the city’s team got off to a rough start in the tournament with a 43-0 defeat to Australia. They will go head-to-head with New Zealand and Samoa on Saturday as the group stage matches continue.

A spectator waves the HKSAR flag on November 4, 2022, the first day of the Hong Kong Sevens. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Local media reported on Friday that some tourists bought tickets to the sevens but were denied entry, as they held an amber code in their LeaveHomeSafe app, the QR code issued to fresh arrivals in the city, that prevents access to regulated premises such as restaurants and bars for three days.

Spectators photographed on November 4, 2022, the first day of the Hong Kong Sevens. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Asked if the government would consider relaxing the regulation, Secretary for Culture, Sports and Tourism Kevin Yeung said on Friday that the amber code restriction was the city’s anti-epidemic requirement and only a handful of spectators were affected.

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Kelly Ho

Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.