The US Consulate General on 26 Garden Road, Hong Kong. Photo: Asia Times

The US may become the first country to pull its diplomats and expatriates out of Hong Kong after reports that staff at its consulate general can choose to return home if they feel the coronavirus in the city may affect them.

The consulate stressed in a reply to media inquiries that the measure was merely a “precautionary one” and that those who left for home, mostly non-essential personnel, did so of their own volition and that most services at the consulate would remain normal.

It is understood that Consul General Hanscom Smith and other senior consuls and attachés are not packing to leave.

The consulate added that the State Department also offered options for employees dispatched to the city to leave or remain during the 2003 SARS outbreak.

Those who wished to return to the US would have their flights paid for and would work from there. Some chose to leave because of “practical reasons” like school closures in the city, according to the South China Morning Post and other local papers.

Hong Kong’s Education Bureau has announced the new semester would not start until at least March 16.

China’s deteriorating pandemic, originating from Wuhan in the central province of Hubei, has long spilled into Hong Kong where the total tally of confirmed infection cases has surged to 50, with one death due to the patient’s underlying complications, as of Thursday afternoon. However, one infected resident was cured and discharged on Wednesday.

The US Consulate General in Hong Kong. Photos: Asia Times

Washington’s consulate in Hong Kong, housed in a standalone office block in Central, is one of the largest US diplomatic missions in the world, with a staff headcount of more than 300, bigger than the size of many US embassies.

The news of a voluntary evacuation fueled rumors among expats, with some saying the city’s government had failed to contain the spread of the highly contagious pathogen.

Hong Kong is also home to one of the largest US expat communities, with about 85,000 citizens living and working in the city.

Washington also runs a much smaller consulate in Wuhan, ground zero of the virus, which has ceased operations with its American employees airlifted home after the city was sealed off at the end of January to stop the infected from fleeing and passing the virus onto more people elsewhere.

The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, which represents 1,400 US companies operating in the city, said it would not make any recommendations on evacuation to its members.

Hong Kong police at the Shenzhen Bay Port border crossing wear masks as a preventative measure against the coronavirus. Photo: AFP/Philip Fong

US airlines including United, Delta and American Airlines have reduced departures from Hong Kong or halted services on some routes. Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific continues to fly to a number of American destinations including New York, Washington, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles, even though the carrier finds it difficult to fill all the seats on returning flights due to the city’s lingering social unrest since last summer and now the health scare from the coronavirus.

Diplomats from other nations, including Germany, Belgium, Australia, and Japan, and representatives from the European Union, say they will stay put and expats from their countries are not panicking, according to the SCMP and RTHK. 

Like their local peers, many foreign-invested companies are scrapping punctuality and attendance checks to allow employees to work remotely from home.

Meanwhile, it was revealed that Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam convened a meeting with about 50 consuls general as well as business leaders to brief them on her administration’s measures to battle the virus earlier this week.

Lam is said to have pleaded with diplomats not to slap travel or entry restrictions on travelers from her city and she also sought help from diplomats in securing supplies of masks and medical gear.

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