Hong Kong reported a record 102 new local virus cases on Wednesday as the city’s “most severe” situation since the pandemic began prompted health officials to expand virus-protection measures.
Of the additional local cases, more than half were unlinked to previous cases, according to data from the city’s health department on Wednesday. The Asian financial hub has been caught off-guard by the sudden eruption of infections, with the number of untraceable cases signaling that hidden chains of transmission are widespread.
“Hong Kong’s epidemic is at the most severe moment,” Sophia Chan, secretary for food and health, said in a briefing Wednesday. “I urge all citizens to stay in their homes and stop unnecessary outings.”
Officials said on Wednesday that imported cases numbered 8, out of a total of 113 imported and local infections. On Thursday, the Hong Kong government revised the number of imported cases to 11, making the number of local infections 102, not 105.
Officials are quickly imposing the strictest rules yet after easing guidelines over the past month. Effective Thursday, mask-wearing requirements will be expanded to indoor public venues — including malls, shops, supermarkets, markets and building lobbies, Chan said. The maximum fine will be HK$5,000 ($645). Currently, public transport passengers are already required to wear masks to curb the virus.
Hong Kong will also extend a 14-day mandatory quarantine for those with travel history to mainland China, Taiwan and Macau to Sept. 7. The US and Kazakhstan were added to a list of high-risk regions, meaning inbound travelers who have been to those countries in the last 14 days must pass a virus test before boarding their flights.
The government might further tighten virus-control rules if cases continue to surge, Chan said. The city has dismissed speculation that Hong Kong will be imminently locked down.
Hong Kong is reeling from another wave of cases as outbreaks elsewhere in Asia are also raising alarms. Australia, once hailed as a success in containing the virus, hit a daily record for infections on Wednesday. Tokyo’s infections now total more than 10,000, as Japan’s capital struggles to stamp out new clusters. The flare-ups are a sobering reminder of the difficulty of eradicating the pandemic that has sickened almost 15 million people worldwide.
The resurgence of cases in Hong Kong has been aggressive after a period that saw residents return to normal life. While the city reacted quickly to the epidemic earlier this year, implemented mask-wearing and social distancing, complacency set in as daily local cases dwindled to near zero in mid-April.
In addition to the tighter new restrictions, the government is also scrambling to boost testing, quarantine and hospitalization facilities. But for now, it is avoiding a lockdown as it tries to keep the economy open.
Lam Ching Choi, a member of Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s Executive Council and a doctor, said Hong Kong is seeking a strategy that balances public health, the economy and social acceptance in a city that has been rocked by anti-government protests. As a result, it isn’t aiming for zero cases, like mainland China is, through heavy lockdowns.
Lam also noted the difficulty of shutting down restaurants, even though they are high-risk areas, because of the popularity of dining out in the city, with some families never cooking at home. Hong Kong restaurants currently must stop dine-in services by 6 p.m.
“Our trust level is maybe the lowest compared with western countries because of the social events that happened this year,” Lam said in an interview. “So we must listen to our people and not affect their work, their daily lives – like shopping or visiting their family members.”