Hong Kong is on the verge of a “large-scale” coronavirus outbreak that could overwhelm hospitals, Chief Executive, Carrie Lam warned Wednesday, as authorities implemented their toughest social distancing measures yet.
The city has declared a compulsory facemask rule, as all residents in the densely packed city of 7.5 million must wear masks when they leave their homes, while restaurants can only serve takeaway meals.
No more than two people from different households can gather in public with fines of up to HK$5,000 ($625) for those who breach the new emergency rules.
The latest measures are a bid to reverse a sudden spike in coronavirus cases that has upended the city’s otherwise enviable battle against the deadly disease.
More than 1,000 infections have been confirmed since early July — more than 40 percent of the total since the virus first hit the city in late January. New daily infections have risen above 100 in the past six days.
Health officials have been scrambling to uncover the source of the latest outbreak, while some have blamed exemptions from the usual 14-day quarantine that the government granted to “essential personnel”, including cross-boundary truckers, air and sea crew and some manufacturing executives. The government has since tightened restrictions for some of those groups.
“We are on the verge of a large-scale community outbreak, which may lead to a collapse of our hospital system and cost lives, especially of the elderly,” Chief Executive Carrie Lam said in a statement released on Wednesday to coincide with the new measures.
“In order to protect our loved ones, our healthcare staff and Hong Kong, I appeal to you to follow strictly the social distancing measures and stay at home as far as possible,” she added.
Hong Kong was one of the first places hit by the coronavirus when it emerged from China at the start of the year.
It initially had remarkable success in controlling the outbreak — helped in part by a health-conscious public embracing face masks and an efficient track and trace programme, forged in the fires of the deadly SARS virus in 2003.
By June, local transmission had all but ended. But the virus has now sneaked back into the city and begun spreading.