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Is this the future of international travel with Covid-19?
02:20 - Source: CNN
Hong Kong CNN  — 

Hong Kong will make wearing masks in public compulsory and limit gatherings to no more than two people as officials in the city grapple with a rising surge in coronavirus infections.

On Monday, Hong Kong’s Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung announced that face masks would be mandatory in both indoor and outdoor public places from Wednesday, with offenders facing fines of up to 5,000 Hong Kong dollars ($645), although he didn’t specify how the new measure would be enforced.

People with “reasonable excuses” such as medical conditions or children under the age of two will be exempt, he added.

Cheung also announced that the Chinese central government will help build a Wuhan-style makeshift hospital near Hong Kong’s airport with a capacity of around 2,000 hospital beds.

“The epidemic situation is critical,” Cheung said, adding that the next few weeks are extremely crucial for the city. “We are facing a high risk of community outbreak.”

The restrictions come as the city faces a coronavirus outbreak dubbed locally as its “third wave,” with the origin of many infections still unknown. Hong Kong had been lauded for its relative success in curbing the spread of the coronavirus. However, on Monday, Hong Kong authorities reported more than 100 new cases for the sixth straight day, bringing the city’s total to more than 2,700.

People wearing face masks are seen shopping at a fish stall inside a wet market on July 25, 2020 in Hong Kong.  (Photo by Vernon Yuen/NurPhoto via AP)

Over the past two days, a 76-year-old woman and a 92-year-old man died of Covid-19, bringing the total number of coronavirus deaths in the city to 20.

Before Monday’s numbers were announced, Cheung said that over the past 14 days, 1,163 new cases had been recorded – and the origin of 492 of the infections could not be traced.

The new restrictions are the tightest rules yet introduced in Hong Kong, which had previously limited public gatherings to four people.

When asked why the city stopped short of imposing a complete lockdown – as other places around the world have done – Cheung said doing so would be too inconvenient, and said he thought the current measures were appropriate.

Sophia Chan, Hong Kong’s health secretary, said that authorities were aiming to expand testing. They planned to test sellers at 300 markets and around 14,000 minibus drivers.

Though a majority of Hong Kong residents have willingly worn masks in public since the outbreak began earlier this year, face coverings remain a highly contentious and politicized issue in other parts of the world. In the United States and elsewhere, a number of senior politicians have appeared reluctant to endorse their usage despite evidence showing face masks protect both the wearer and others from Covid-19.

Hong Kong’s outbreak

Despite Hong Kong’s proximity to mainland China – where the first cases of coronavirus were reported – the city has managed to keep its case count relatively low.

That success has been attributed to tight border rules that prevent non-residents from entering the city, efficient contact tracing, and residents’ willingness to practice good hygiene, wear masks and practice social distancing.

The situation has changed in recent weeks, with authorities warning of the potential for “exponential growth” in new cases following a sudden cluster of cases.

Earlier this month, authorities restricted gatherings to no more than four people, closed beaches, and required restaurants to close after 6 p.m., although take-out was allowed to continue.

On Sunday, Hong Kong’s Department of Health imposed new measures requiring crew members on goods vessels entering Hong Kong to remain on board the vessel during ship’s stay in Hong Kong waters.

Flight crews are also required to present a negative coronavirus test result 48 hours before boarding a flight to Hong Kong.

CNN’s Chermaine Lee and Isaac Yee contributed to this report.