Hong Kong limits private gatherings to fight COVID-19

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Residents line up to get tested for the coronavirus at a temporary testing center for COVID-19 in Hong Kong, Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022. The number of local COVID-19 infections in Hong Kong had spiked following the Lunar New Year holidays. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

HONG KONG – Hong Kong’s leader announced on Tuesday the city's toughest social-distancing restrictions yet, including unprecedented limits on private gatherings, as new daily cases surge above 600.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam said gatherings in private premises of more than two families will be banned starting Thursday.

Public gatherings will be restricted to two people, and hair salons and places of worship will be closed until Feb. 24, when the city launches a “vaccine pass” that will require people to show proof of vaccination to enter shopping malls, markets and eateries.

The tightened measures come as the city grapples with a new wave of the coronavirus driven by the omicron variant. Over 600 local cases were reported on Tuesday.

“I appeal to the public to join us in the fight against the virus,” Lam said at a news conference. “Please try to avoid going out as far as possible.”

Hong Kong has aligned itself with China’s “zero-COVID” policy, which aims to totally stamp out outbreaks, as many other countries shift their approach to living with the virus.

Authorities impose lockdowns on residential buildings wherever clusters of infections are identified, and have banned public dining after 6 p.m.

Lam said that approach will remain in effect until vaccination rates rise.

“We will continue to adhere to the current strategy of trying to contain the spread of the virus, or what we call maintaining this dynamic zero regime,” Lam said.

“But when vaccination rates increase, when omicron disappears and other things happen, then of course we will continue to revisit our strategy. But nothing will change our commitment to safeguard the life and the safety of the people of Hong Kong.”

Lam also announced that the government will introduce a sixth round of subsidies totaling 26 billion Hong Kong dollars ($3.3 billion) for businesses and individuals affected by the pandemic.

Those suffering from temporary unemployment as a result of the pandemic will receive a one-time payment of $1,300, while front-line workers such as cleaners, security guards and airport cargo staff will receive about $250 a month for five months.