HK ends one of world’s longest mask mandates after 945 days

HONG KONG will stop requiring masks to be worn in public places from Wednesday, drawing to a close the prolonged Covid era that damaged its economy and standing in the world.

Masks will no longer be needed outdoors, indoors or on public transport, Hong Kong leader John Lee told reporters on Tuesday.

“From tomorrow we are completely returning to normalcy,” Mr. Lee said. “This year and the next year, we will focus on the economy and development.”

The move comes as the government seeks to attract tourists and overseas workers to revitalize the finance hub. Next month will see Hong Kong host the biggest series of international events since often-violent protests in 2019 shut down much of the city, including a music festival, Art Basel and the Rugby Sevens tournament. Hong Kong had dropped most other pandemic restrictions by earlier this year. 

“For business it’s a game changer,” said Allan Zeman, chairman of Lan Kwai Fong Holdings Ltd. “Before, a lot of people would stay away from Hong Kong because the mask was showing that we were still stuck in the Covid days.”

People have been required to wear masks in all public places, including outdoors, from July 29, 2020. The rule is enforceable by fines of up to HK$10,000 ($1,275), with police regularly handing out HK$5,000 penalties on the spot for transgressors.

Shares of companies linked to tourism gained. Mall landlords Wharf Real Estate Investment Co. and New World Development Co. rose more than 2%. Sa Sa International Holdings Ltd., which sells beauty products, climbed as much as 6.4%.

Hong Kong was one of last places on Earth to mandate mask-wearing. At one stage, masks were required even when exercising. The rule increasingly jarred with Hong Kong’s push to move beyond the pandemic and lure visitors. As part of its Hello Hong Kong campaign, the city is giving away more than half a million airline tickets starting from Wednesday.

Tourism figures remain low. In January, passenger volumes at the Norman Foster-designed airport were a third of the level four years earlier. That compares with 77% for Singapore.

“At least now tourists don’t have to worry about being fined for not wearing a mask in the street,” said Pamela Mak, president of Hong Kong Small and Medium Enterprises Association.

The past three years of global isolation have weighed heavily on Hong Kong’s economy and reputation. The economy shrank 3.5% in 2022, contracting for the third time in four years. The population has fallen by a net 187,000 in the three years through 2022 as residents fled for other cities. — Bloomberg