HONG KONG, CHINA — Hongkongers will finally be able to leave home without a face mask from Wednesday, nearly 1,000 days after the pandemic mandate was imposed.
Face coverings will no longer be required indoors, outdoors or on public transport, the government announced, ending a measure that has become a relic globally as the world adjusts to living alongside the coronavirus.
Hong Kong was one of the last places on Earth to enforce mask-wearing outside, with violators facing hefty fines.
“I’m ready to get rid of this,” Tiffany, a finance industry employee in her 20s, told AFP. “It costs money to buy masks, and I have had COVID myself.”
The end of masking restrictions comes as the government tries to woo back tourists and overseas talent to revive the recession-hit economy.
“With the masking requirement removed, we are starting (to resume) normalcy… And that will be very beneficial to economic development,” Chief Executive John Lee said at a Tuesday morning press conference.
Speaking at the same event, Health Secretary Lo Chung-mau said starting 1 March, “everyone can show their smiling faces”.
Many in the city were increasingly chafing under the mandate.
Lawmakers called it harmful to schoolchildren. Tourism experts and business groups warned it was undercutting the city’s global image. And public health experts questioned the necessity against an endemic virus.
“We have got a high level of hybrid immunity and a relatively low case fatality rate –- the latter at a level similar to flu,” said Kwok Kin-on, an associate professor of public health at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, calling masking unneeded.
The policy also appeared at odds with Lee’s recently announced “Hello, Hong Kong” campaign to welcome travellers with “no isolation, no quarantine and no restrictions”.
Maskless dancers in the campaign’s promotional video attracted criticism online for distorting the reality of a city where face coverings were ubiquitous and enforced with fines of up to HK$10,000 ($1,275).
Official data shows that by the end of 2022, Hong Kong had issued more than 22,000 tickets for mask violations and collected HK$111.56 million in fines.
Hong Kong was one of the world’s last masking holdouts.
By last year, most European countries that had imposed mask rules had scaled them back everywhere except on planes and some metros.
Hong Kong’s Asian rival Singapore scrapped indoor face coverings in August, while South Korea did the same in January this year.
In Taiwan, people could breathe unfiltered air again in most areas as of February 20, and Macau became the most recent addition after dropping its mandate on Monday.
Lee said he would leave high-risk venues like hospitals and elderly care homes to make their own masking policies.
Shortly after his announcement, the public hospitals operator said patients, visitors and staff would still need to don surgical masks before entering government-run health facilities.
Until the end of last year, Hong Kong had one of the world’s strictest pandemic approaches.
It hewed to a version of China’s zero-COVID model until Beijing’s abrupt pivot from the hallmark containment policy in December.
In Hong Kong, the nearly three-year pandemic isolation and virus restrictions further dented an economy already reeling from massive democracy protests in 2019 followed by a crackdown on the opposition.
Still, not everyone in the city is ready to rip off their masks.
“Despite the mask mandate being lifted, I’ll continue wearing it in the short term,” said Chan, a retiree.
He said he would wait to make sure there was no rebound of infections after Hong Kong restored travel across its border with mainland China this month.
“The mask is like a part of my body,” he said. “If I stop wearing it, it’ll take a bit of getting used to.”