Hongkongers will be able to join local tours of up to 30 people each and wedding ceremonies of no more than 50 guests starting from Friday, officials revealed on Tuesday, as five new Covid-19 cases were recorded.
But while Hong Kong’s leader said the city had not met the criteria necessary to relax social-distancing measures further, a civil rights group questioned why the larger gatherings should be allowed when public assemblies remained capped at just four people, a de facto ban on protests.
Hong Kong has now recorded 5,261 confirmed infections, with 105 related deaths.
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Travel agencies taking advantage of the newly unveiled rules must implement a series of infection-control measures while operating tours, or risk losing out on subsidies or their right to run groups locally.
Tour groups and wedding ceremonies were previously subject to caps of four and 20 people, respectively.
At an afternoon press conference, health minister Professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee said the government was adopting targeted measures to help gradually restore the city’s social life, noting that zero infections was not a realistic target until a vaccine was available.
“When adjusting social-distancing measures, we hope to avoid an all-or-nothing approach and enhance cooperation with the sectors to enhance infection-control measures in related premises,” Chan said.
The new arrangement, effective Friday, will require tourists to wear masks throughout their trip, while the transport used can only be half full.
The number of people allowed in business meetings, meanwhile, will be raised to 50 from the current 20, while sports activities in swimming pools can involve more than four team members.
But the new rules for weddings will not extend to banquets, and no food or drinks will be allowed at ceremonies. All other social-distancing measures will remain in place for at least another week.
Speaking at the same press conference, commerce minister Edward Yau Tang-wah said all local tours must be registered with the Travel Industry Council. A travel agency would also need to sign an agreement with the council ensuring members of the tour group complied with a set of rules.
“Public health must be ensured in itineraries, transport, dining, attraction visits and staff arrangements.” Yau said. “Agencies must purchase health insurance for the tourists, record their contact information, conduct temperature checks and ensure they wear masks throughout the trip.”
He added the council would coordinate with tour groups to try to spread them across the city’s attractions rather than at a few popular ones, while travel agencies would be eligible to apply for government and Tourism Board subsidy schemes.
Those who fail to abide by the rules, however, would be banned from conducting tours for a month and subject to potential prosecution.
The industry was more than happy to comply with those conditions in order to kick-start the sector, said Perry Yiu Pak-leung, convenor of the Hong Kong Travel Agents’ Relief Alliance, which represents more than 80 operators.
“We desperately need to have some form of income while travel bubbles are not yet formed and coronavirus relief funds for businesses are no longer being extended,” Yiu said.
A “Free Tour” scheme launched by the Tourism Board on Tuesday would allow locals who spend up to HK$800 (US$103) at designated stores and dining outlets to redeem a free local tour from participating travel agents. The free tours will cover 50 recommended itineraries to be revealed in one week.
Professor David Hui Shu-cheong, an adviser for the government on the pandemic response, said it would be better if tour participants were still asked to walk in groups of four.
“The [tour] arrangement is not totally risk-free, as it is conflicting with the current gathering ban,” Hui said, while conceding the government had to consider the “survival of the tourism sector”.
But Jimmy Sham Tsz-kit, convenor of the Civil Human Rights Front, a civic group that has had multiple applications for marches rejected in recent months due to public health reasons, said the move was the latest in a long line of “naked political oppression”.
“Why is it safe for 30 people to visit the Big Buddha on Lantau, but not safe for 30 people to protest? They would say it’s because the tour groups are registered. But we have a public face and everyone knows who we are too,” he said. “There is no scientific basis whatsoever.’
Earlier in the day, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said that while overall cases had been trending downward over the past week, there would be no changes to major social-distancing regulations.
“We do not have the criteria to enter the next phase of relaxation of social-distancing measures at the moment,” Lam said, calling it a matter of prudence.
All but one of the five cases recorded on Tuesday were imported. The sole local case, from an unknown source, involved a 32-year-old woman whose infection was discovered through testing at the Yau Tsim Mong temporary centre, the facility’s first confirmed case.
The woman, who lives at Grand Promenade in Sai Wan Ho with her family, began to feel unwell on October 16. Two days later, she went to see a private doctor, who did not think she had Covid-19 but suggested she go for a test if she was worried.
She went to the temporary testing centre that same day and was found to be infected.
Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the Centre for Health Protection’s communicable disease branch, said five to six family members who had dinner with the woman would be sent to a quarantine centre, along with two or three colleagues who sat near her.
The woman’s workplace, located at One Island East, was to be temporarily closed for disinfection and about 100 employees who worked on the same floor were to be given specimen bottles for virus testing.
Tuesday’s four imported infections involved arrivals from India, Russia, France and Britain, where London’s Heathrow Airport has just rolled out a one-hour Covid-19 test for travellers heading to Hong Kong or Italy.
Both destinations require passengers arriving from Britain to produce a negative coronavirus test before boarding a flight.
The screening will use the established LAMP test, which is quicker than the PCR test – considered the gold standard of testing – but more accurate than the rapid antigen test.
Additional reporting by Kathleen Magramo
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