All Hong Kong people are now required to wear masks on the streets. Photo: RTHK

Everyone in Hong Kong will have to wear masks in public from Wednesday, authorities said, as they unveiled the city’s toughest social distancing measures yet to combat a new wave of coronavirus infections.

“The epidemic situation in Hong Kong is remarkably severe,” Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung told reporters Monday as he announced new measures, including a ban on more than two people gathering in public and restaurants only being allowed to serve takeaway meals.

The densely packed financial hub was one of the first places hit by the coronavirus when it emerged from China, but initially had remarkable success in controlling the outbreak.

Hong Kongers were enthusiastic early adopters of wearing face masks

Local infections have soared over the last month, however, with piecemeal social distancing measures appearing to do little to stem the rising tide of new cases.

More than 1,000 infections have been confirmed since early July – more than 40% of the total since the virus first hit the city in late January.

New daily infections have been above 100 for the last five days and the city of 7.5 million now has more than 2,600 infections with 19 fatalities.

Some health experts have blamed the current flare-up on an exemption from the usual 14-day quarantine which the government granted to “essential personnel,” including cross-boundary truckers and air and sea crew.

Because of its extensive air links and busy port, Hong Kong is a popular transit point for ships to change crews.

On Sunday, authorities tightened those rules.

Only vessels with freight destined for Hong Kong will be able to swap out personnel, but even they will not be allowed to mingle in public and must go straight to or from the airport, or stay in a designated quarantine venue.

Earlier this month the government shuttered a number of businesses – including bars, nightclubs and gyms – and banned restaurants from receiving dine-in customers in the evenings.

They also ordered people to wear masks while taking public transport or at indoor public venues. 

The new rules mean that from Wednesday restaurants will only be allowed to serve takeout meals.

“I hope everyone can bear with this,” Cheung told reporters.

No more than two people can gather in any public place, although there are exemptions for those in the same household or those heading to work.

Cheung called on employers to allow staff to work from home, but so far authorities have resisted making such an order compulsory.