With Covid restrictions banished to the history books across the world, Chief Executive John Lee has told business leaders that Hong Kong is “onstage again,” whilst his finance chief declared the city “back in business.”

Yet the reality on the ground suggests anything but, with social strict distancing rules still in full swing and the health chief this week insisting the city is still facing a “public health emergency.”

File photo: Pixabay.

Shareholder activist David Webb said the city might as well position itself as a “living museum” for those nostalgic about draconian Covid rules.

Across the border in mainland China, Beijing has doubled down on its commitment to zero-Covid policies, despite announcing the easing of some rules on Friday. In Hong Kong, there is no timetable for lifting curbs and the economy is now feeling the pressure – on Friday, the government revealed that GDP had fallen 4.5 per cent since a year ago.

Nevertheless, the finance hub has a proven record of bouncing back, as Lee said at the landmark bankers’ summit last week. But is it premature to claim normality is returning when arrivals to the city are still down 97 per cent compared to three years ago?

HKFP reviews the remaining social distancing rules still in place – some of them forgotten, some of them bizarre – as medics question the science behind them and the public increasingly question the need.

Masks in public, 24/7

Masks must be worn in public places, including shops, or residents risk a fixed penalty of HK$5,000. The government has allowed exemptions for those exercising outdoors or in gyms and sport stadiums, but not for smokers.

The city’s leader has indicated that face coverings are here to stay: “Masks will stay on because I think all experts have indicated masks [are] important to control the spread of the disease,” Lee said this week. But some experts, such as epidemiologist Ben Cowling, have said there is little scientific reason for the requirement at this stage in the pandemic.

Group gathering ban

Gatherings of more than 12 people are banned in public places. Groups must also remain at least 1.5 metres apart. Local tour groups are limited to 30 people, or 100 people if all tourists have undergone a rapid test. Violators face a HK$5,000 fixed penalty.

Covid tracing app for key venues

Since February 24, residents must show proof of vaccination via the LeaveHomeSafe tracing app to enter venues such as supermarkets, malls, schools, government offices, hospitals and other venues.

Those who have had three doses of a Covid vaccination – or two if they received their second jab less than five months prior – will receive a blue QR code in the app to allow entry. Infected patients will have a red QR code, and inbound travellers receive an amber code, barring them from most venues.

In September, the Vaccine Pass was expanded to children as young as five, who must have received at least one Covid-19 vaccine to enter a number of types of premises.

File photo: Pixabay.

Regulated Vaccine Pass premises – click to view

VenuesPresentation of vaccine QR code upon entry / upon request by law enforcementLeaveHomeSafe sign-in required
Restaurants & barsupon entryYes
Supermarketsupon requestYes
Marketsupon requestYes
Shopping mallsupon requestYes
Department storesupon requestYes
Club housesupon entryYes
Gymsupon entryYes
Sports premisesupon entryYes
Swimming Poolsupon entryYes
Places of public entertainment (e.g. cinemas & theatres)upon entryYes
Beauty parloursupon entryYes
Hair salonsupon entryYes
Massage parloursupon entryYes
Event premises upon entryYes
Party roomsupon entryYes
Nightclubsupon entryYes
Places of amusement (e.g. ice skating rinks)upon entryYes
Religious venuesupon entryYes
Bathhousesupon entryYes
Cruise shipsupon entryYes
Karaoke establishmentsupon entryYes
Mahjong housesupon entryYes
Hotels (staff only)upon entryYes
Amusement game centresupon entryYes
Public hospitalsnot requiredYes
Government premisesnot requiredYes

Almost a dozen Covid tests for arrivals

Visitors to Hong Kong must fill in a government health declaration form and show a negative rapid test in order to board a flight. Travellers must perform daily rapid tests and four PCR tests during their first week in the city during a “self-monitoring” period. The PCR tests are conducted on the day of arrival – day zero – and again on day two, day four and day six.

If any tests return positive results, the visitor will be served with an isolation order. Depending on their living circumstances, they may be forced to go to a government quarantine camp.

Eating/drinking ban on public transport

Eating and drinking is to remain banned on Hong Kong public transport, the Health Bureau confirmed to HKFP last week. The department said that the rules were “science-based and targeted.”

While consuming food and drink was always banned in paid areas of the MTR, it was previously allowed on many ferry routes.

Restaurant restrictions

Only 12 people are allowed on each table at restaurants, with screens or distancing still imposed to allow space between groups.

The same limits group apply to swimming pools, sports premises, fitness centres, beauty parlours and massage establishments, places of public entertainment, places of amusement, amusement game centres, event premises, religious premises, barber shops/hair salons, bathhouses, party rooms, clubs and nightclubs, karaoke venues, mahjong premises and cruise ships.

At catering premises, when diners are away from a table, they must not consume food or drink and must wear a mask. The LeaveHomeSafe app must be used when entering the venue.

Up to 240 people may attend a banquet, though they must undergo and show proof of having taken a rapid test within 24 hours to attend.

File photo: Pixabay.

Restrictions on bars and clubs

Aside from using the LeaveHomeSafe app, those wishing to enter bars or nightclubs must show a photo of a rapid test performed in the past 24-hours with their name and date written on it. Venues may only fill to 75 per cent capacity, and a maximum of six patrons may sit at tables. When revellers at bars are away from a table, they must not consume food or drink and must wear a mask – including when dancing.

Most performance venues are restricted to operating at 85 per cent of their capacity.

Event restrictions

Various restrictions have been imposed on recent public events, while some have failed to gain approval altogether. The Hong Kong Marathon was axed, and then rescheduled for next February. The cross-harbour swim was allowed to take place, but limited to 1,500 swimmers.

Meanwhile, restrictions were placed on a trail run taking place this weekend, with the government stating that snacks like bananas may be consumed silently in certain areas, and only if runners are alone.

Police powers and fines

Police retain special powers to disperse illegal group gatherings and demand personal details and ID cards of those suspected of violating Covid rules. They can also inspect restricted premises and impose penalties.

Other authorised officers – such as those from the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department and Food and Environmental Hygiene Department – are also empowered to impose fines.

Restricted capacity at leisure facilities

Public swimming pools may only welcome swimmers up to 50 per cent of their capacity, whilst the capacity of other outdoor venues is also limited, including in spectator stands.

File photo: Pixabay.

Water fountains closed

Water dispensers at all public leisure grounds have been suspended since January 29, 2020, and remain taped up.

Frequent Covid testing for key workers

Teachers, healthcare workers, care home staff, musicians at live music venues and catering staff are among those who must undergo regular Covid tests.

Other venue restrictions

Cinemas, performance venues, museums, event premises and religious premises may only fill their premises up to 85 per cent capacity.

School restrictions

All Hong Kong students must obtain a rapid test to enter school grounds.

Full-day in-person classes were suspended for primary and secondary students in August 2020. Secondary schools must achieve a 70 per cent double-vaccination rate among pupils before they can apply to resume full-day classes or offer after-school extracurricular activities. The same applies to primary schools from December 1. There are no plans to resume full-day teaching at kindergarten level.

Mainland medics allowed in

In February, the government invoked emergency powers to allow in doctors and nurses from the mainland to help tackle the fifth wave of Covid-19.

Quarantine for infected persons

Depending on the severity of symptoms, those who report a positive test result to the government may be sent to hospital, a community isolation facility, or may be allowed to isolate at home under the StayHomeSafe scheme. They must also wear an electronic tracking bracelet. Unvaccinated patients will remain at home for two weeks, whilst those who are jabbed may leave if they test negative on days six and seven.

Household close contacts of infected people may also undergo home quarantine. However, those who live in subdivided flats, or do not have a functional flushing toilet or hand washing facility, or who live with high-risk individuals, may not be allowed to isolate at home.

Local mandatory testing

Those residing in areas of an outbreak defined by the government can be made to undergo a compulsory Covid-19 nucleic acid test. Fixed penalties of HK$10,000 are imposed on those who fail to undergo a test.

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Tom is the editor-in-chief and founder of Hong Kong Free Press. He has a BA in Communications and New Media from Leeds University and an MA in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong. He has contributed to the BBC, Euronews, Al-Jazeera and others.