Hong Kong has unveiled the strictest social distancing restrictions yet – including the suspension of all restaurant dining and a ban on more than two people gathering in public – with Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung describing the coronavirus situation in the city as "extremely worrying".
The officials also announced that they will ramp up the number of tests in badly hit areas like Tsz Wan Shan and cover vulnerable groups such as elderly care home residents.
Cheung announced on Monday that the new restrictions will take effect from Wednesday for seven days, as hundreds of new patients have been coming down with the illness In the past few days.
The new steps include restaurants offering only takeaway service, a ban on gatherings of more than two people – tightened from the current four – and making face masks mandatory at all outdoor public places, as well as the temporary closure of sports premises and swimming pools.
Exemptions to the public gathering rule will apply to those within the same household.
Cheung also called on employers to allow employees to work from home, and called on the public to avoid unnecessary public gatherings.
When asked if the government reacted too slowly in implementing the measures, Cheung said that they had to “strike a balance” every time.
“It’s like a three-way tug of war between the protection of public health on the one hand; economic impact; and finally the other side of the equation, of course, is public acceptance,” said Cheung.
Food and Health Secretary Sophia Chan said they will expand testing as more local cases with unknown sources of transmission are being reported.
She said that in the coming week, the government will gradually expand testing to minibus drivers, vendors in wet markets, and staff of special-needs schools.
On top of taxi drivers, as well as elderly care home, restaurant and property management workers announced earlier, the number of workers covered is expected to top 500,000.
Chan also confirmed that the Home Affairs Department will cooperate with the Tung Wah Hospital Group to arrange for Covid-19 testing for residents who live in hard-hit Tsz Wan Shan district.
Home Affairs Secretary Caspar Tsui said he expected the Tsz Wan Shan tests to be done in two weeks.
Regarding the regulation making face masks compulsory at outdoor places, Chan said only those with a reasonable excuse will be exempted. She said examples of a reasonable excuse are eating and drinking, and taking medication, but smoking will not be one of them.
"We would like to take this opportunity to appeal to the public to, well perhaps, take this opportunity to quit smoking," she said.
Chan had earlier said making masks compulsory outdoors would affect people engaged in strenuous activities like jogging.