Consumers have returned to Hong Kong's shopping malls in recent weeks. Photo: Asia Times

The Hong Kong government announced on Tuesday that the social distancing rules prohibiting gatherings of more than four people in public places will be relaxed from Friday as the severity of the Covid-19 epidemic has been greatly reduced.

From Friday, Hong Kong residents will be allowed to gather in groups of up to eight in public places, including restaurants. Other restrictions on restaurants, such as the requirement that tables must be situated at least 1.5 meters apart, will remain in place.

Bars, fitness centers, cinemas, beauty and massage parlours and various other entertainment venues will be allowed to reopen. However, karaoke establishments, party rooms and nightclubs will remain closed until May 21.

Tommy Cheung Yu-yan, a legislator representing the catering functional constituency, said he was disappointed that some premises had to be closed for two more weeks. He said there was no need to shut down karaokes as customers could sing with masks on.

Since March 29, police have been handing out HK$2,000 (US$256) penalty tickets to people they have accused of violating the law. Some elderly people were given tickets in parks while some pro-democracy protesters complained that the police had misused the rule to penalize them.

On Tuesday, Hong Kong achieved its goal of recording no local infections for 16 days in a row with the number of cases remaining at 1,040.

Although the only confirmed cases in the last two weeks have been people who had recently returned to Hong Kong, it was still too early to jump to the conclusion that the chain of transmission for Covid-19 was broken, Chuang Shuk-kwan, director of the Communicable Disease Division, Centre for Health Protection, said Monday. 

Chung said a 27-year-old Hong Kong woman who had returned from the United States became the latest person to test positive for the new coronavirus on Monday. She said the patient had previously lost her sense of smell and taste, and suffered from a sore throat for a week in April, but recovered and did not consult a doctor.

The social distancing rules, as well as the 14-day quarantine measures for incoming travellers and people wearing masks in public places have apparently contributed to Hong Kong’s success in battling the virus, said officials. However, the local economy was negatively impacted by some of the measures taken. 

On Monday, Financial Secretary Paul Chan announced that Hong Kong’s gross domestic product fell 8.9% in the first quarter of this year from the same period of last year. It was the biggest-ever quarterly economic contraction in the territory.

Hong Kong’s exports, investment and consumption have been seriously hit by the pandemic, as well as the US-China tensions and the volatility in the global financial markets, Chan said. The downturn will continue for some time, he added.

Meanwhile, secondary three to five students will be back in their classrooms from May 27 while primary four, secondary one and two students will return to class on June 8, said the government.

Other primary school children and those in kindergarten three will go back on June 15. Education Secretary Kevin Yeung said half-day sessions for students would be the starting point. There will be no classes for the rest of this year for children in the first two years of kindergarten.

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