Hong Kong, one of the last major international cities requiring face masks, on Tuesday announced it will end its controversial mandate nearly three years after it was enacted to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
The mandate, enforced through fines that could reach more than $1,000, had required facial coverings in all public spaces including outdoors, indoors and public transport. At one point, it had even been mandatory while exercising outside.
The rule came into effect on July 15, 2020, though the vast majority of people in the city had begun wearing masks months earlier as reports of coronavirus infections spread, leading to panic buying and shortages as early as January that year.
The mandate will be fully lifted on Wednesday, the city’s leader John Lee said at a news briefing Tuesday.
“We are now returning to normalcy,” Lee said, as the Asian financial hub launches a major push to welcome back business travelers and tourists.
Hong Kong has rolled back several other major controls in recent months, most notably mandatory quarantine for all international arrivals, in a move anticipated to boost tourism.
Speaking at the same news briefing, Health Secretary Lo Mau-chung said that with the lifting of the mask mandate, “We have now removed all epidemic restrictions.”
“I’m looking forward to seeing a smile on everyone’s face now,” he said. However, he added, there are still some recommendations in place to wear masks at “high risk” areas such as elderly care homes and hospitals.
Most other places in Asia have either fully or partially eased their mask mandates in recent months, including South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.
The World Health Organization still recommends health workers wear masks, with Maria Van Kerkhove, technical lead of WHO’s Covid response, warning that the virus was “circulating pretty much unchecked around the world at the moment.”
This is a developing story.