Hongkongers are basking in the sun on beaches without masks and gathering in larger groups over lunch after the further easing of social-distancing rules.
The latest relaxation of anti-epidemic curbs on Thursday affects public beaches, swimming pools and water sports centres, which were closed as the fifth wave of coronavirus infections worsened.
Masks were also no longer mandatory when exercising outdoors, another measure Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor announced on Tuesday.
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Health officials on Thursday confirmed 321 Covid-19 infections, including 17 imported cases, as well as five more deaths related to the virus. There were also 26 reports of positive self-tests from 24 students and two teachers.
At Repulse Bay Beach, one of 15 public beaches with lifeguards on duty, about 100 people were soaking up the sun or swimming at 10am.
Emerging from the water was Wilson Tsang, 77. He said he used to go for a morning swim every day but stopped in January when the fifth wave broke out.
“It is so comfortable to swim in the water. It was unbearable not being able to swim every day,” he said, with a big smile. “At 6.30 to 7am, there were even more swimmers.”
A 36 year-old man was playing in the sand with his three-year-old son.
“It’s wonderful. It’s great. Not many people here. The sun is shining. The water is good,” said the father, who gave his name as Shane. “I definitely [prefer] public beaches … It’s also for safety reasons. The lifeguards are always here watching just in case something happens.”
Enjoying the sea breeze on a beach mat was Mary Shek, 40, and a four-year-old girl she takes care of.
“We are very happy. The child was playing with sand in our living room. She really wanted to come here,” she said. “We have not been going out much during the pandemic except to the wet market.”
The relaxation also came as good news to the city’s sports lovers, such as 22-year-old university student Crystal*. She has plans to go to Repulse Bay or Big Wave Bay, both of which are close to her home, on May 13.
“I’m really excited as I used to go swimming quite often … I love water sports and I have not seen my friends for a while, so I can hang out with them at the beach and enjoy the summer,” she said. “The beaches may be very crowded with people this week, so I’ll go some time later.”
Wong prefers beaches over pools as they are more spacious, allowing more distance between visitors and lowering the risk of Covid-19 transmission.
Winnie Ho, a 55-year-old housewife, said she was also organising hiking trips with friends next week, adding that they had not visited country parks for two to three months due to the pandemic.
“We will hike more often now. Previously, with masks on, we could only go to easier routes once a week as the weather was too warm,” she said. “We do not have to work so we will not go during weekends, when the trails will be filled with people.”
As the Covid-19 situation in Hong Kong continued to abate, authorities were able to relax some of the social-distancing measures earlier than the scheduled date of May 19.
Beaches under the management of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department were closed on March 17 amid the peak of the pandemic, while swimming pools and water sports centres were shut since January when the fifth wave began.
But the department said for the time being, lifeguard services would be provided at only 15 of the 42 public beaches in the city, warning that residents should avoid swimming in the sea where no lifeguards were present.
Of 44 public swimming pools, 38 will reopen either on May 12 or May 16 due to cleaning work, while the rest are under maintenance or reconstruction. The number of swimmers at pools is also capped at 50 per cent of each facility’s capacity.
Diners allowed per table at restaurants will also increase from four to eight on Thursday.
At three traditional Chinese restaurants in Aberdeen at around 1.30pm, about 10 to 20 per cent of the tables were filled with groups of more than four. Though many of the diners were elderly residents in groups of two to four, others were there in larger groups with friends and family.
The manager of Dragon Place said he expected a similar situation during dinner.
“Not many elderly have received the second dose so not a lot of people dine in large groups,” he noted.
Ann Tang, 73, was belatedly celebrating her birthday with 15 elderly friends at the restaurant, with the group split between two large round tables.
“Of course we are delighted that we can sit together,” she said, adding that they would meet every Thursday.
She said that she planned to receive a third dose as required by the city’s vaccine pass scheme from May 31 in order to dine at restaurants.
The Post observed that residents at other restaurants in Aberdeen were generally dining in groups of four or five, as most tables could only seat that number, and plastic barriers were placed between tables.
Nick Wu Kai-ming, a spokesman for the Hong Kong and Kowloon Life Guards’ Union, said swimming pools were unable to reopen due to miscommunication between government departments.
He added that it took time to fill pools and conduct disinfection, and that he did not expect they would be allowed to resume operations ahead of schedule.
“We, the frontline staff, thought the situation would improve after learning from our past experiences during the previous waves of Covid-19,” he told a radio programme on Thursday. “We did not expect it to get worse this time. We only had two to three days to prepare for the reopening.”
Wu said some beaches could not provide lifeguard services or had to reopen with half of their staff due to a manpower shortage.
He said the sector had faced a years-long staffing crunch, with the situation deteriorating recently as there were no new joiners due to the suspension of life-saving award exams during the pandemic.
The sector was short of 500 lifeguards last year. Some lifeguards had also taken on other jobs during the closure of pools and beaches, he added.
He said government lifeguard jobs offered few salary increases and no proper promotion pathways, which deterred people from joining the industry. He accused authorities of ignoring the issue, adding that the union had warned the government about the problem for six years.
This will be the second phase of the relaxation of social-distancing measures after April 21, when evening dine-in service was resumed and places such as cinemas, beauty salons and sports premises were allowed to reopen.
Measures will be further eased on May 19, when restaurants will be allowed to operate until midnight and premises such as party rooms and karaoke places can reopen.
The city’s coronavirus tally stood at 1,205,717, with 9,333 related fatalities.
*Name changed at interviewee’s request.
Additional reporting by Nadia Lam
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