Speaking at an event for the new “Happy Hong Kong” campaign last week, the city’s Secretary for Home and Youth Affairs, Alice Mak, said the government wanted “to put a smile on everyone’s face.”
But as she outlined a program of cultural activities designed to boost the city’s spirits, Ms. Mak’s own expression was hidden behind a large white mask. For almost three years now, Hong Kongers have had to cover their faces, both inside and outdoors, or face a fine of as much as $1,700.
Even as the city opened its borders and dropped restrictions on gatherings this year, the mask mandate persisted. Last week, the government extended a law enforcing it until March 8.
But after Macao on Monday dropped requirements for people to be masked outdoors, Hong Kong finally caved to public pressure. Starting Wednesday, Chief Executive John Lee said, the mask mandate will be dropped. Unlike the city’s smaller neighbour, there will be no staged relaxation of the rules, though businesses, schools and hospitals can still ask people to cover their faces.
“In order to give people a very clear message that Hong Kong is resuming normalcy, I think this is the right time to make this decision,” Mr. Lee told reporters Tuesday. “Evidence shows that the coronavirus is under control in Hong Kong, without major signs of rebound.”
Health Minister Lo Chung-mau said dropping the mask mandate marked “an official end to all social-distancing measures.”
“We hope that tomorrow, March 1, will be a better day. We can all show our smiles and say, ‘Hello Hong Kong,’ ” Mr. Lo said, referring to another recently launched government campaign to attract tourists, businesses and talent back to the city, in part by giving away some 700,000 airline tickets.
Confused messaging around restrictions and testing requirements – all of which are now done away with – have hampered the tourism sector’s recovery so far, even as the biggest source of visitors, mainland China, has finally reopened its borders. Hong Kong’s airport is still not at full capacity, with passenger volumes at only 40 per cent of prepandemic levels in January, compared with 77 per cent for regional rival Singapore.
Hong Kong’s economy shrank 3.5 per cent last year, the third contraction in four years. At the same time, the population was down about 120,000, the biggest drop since records began in 1961, as people moved overseas to avoid pandemic restrictions and the draconian national security law introduced in 2020.
Dropping the mask mandate comes at an opportune time, as next month will see Hong Kong host some of its biggest traditional draws: the Clockenflap music festival, Art Basel and the Hong Kong Sevens rugby tournament. The city is also courting businesses and wealthy investors with a series of summits.
So far, however, the HK$100-million ($17.3-million) “Hello Hong Kong” scheme has been met with mixed results. One PR executive told the South China Morning Post that a video featuring Mr. Lee kicking off the campaign was “embarrassingly bad in execution” and looked “cheap and tacky.” Many questioned launching the campaign while restrictions were still in place, as well as relying on local celebrities with little international recognition.