HONG KONG — Hong Kong said Friday that it would abolish mandatory quarantine for travelers, easing rigid pandemic rules that have isolated the once-thriving financial center, pummeled the economy and fueled an exodus of residents.
John Lee, the city’s leader, said that starting Monday, travelers will be able to do PCR tests on arrival, then perform medical monitoring in their hotels or homes for three days via an app that assigns a color-coded health pass. During this time, they will not be able to enter bars or restaurants but will otherwise be able to move around the city. Additional coronavirus tests and a further four days of self-monitoring will be required in the period after arrival.
“We hope to reduce the inconvenience for arriving passengers. We don’t want to move backwards,” Lee said in a news conference, emphasizing the need to balance health risks with the desire for economic revival.
The moves are designed to reinvigorate a formerly freewheeling international city that lost its competitive edge under some of the world’s toughest coronavirus restrictions as most countries opened up.
But many are asking whether the measures are too little, too late. Hong Kong’s population dropped at its steepest rate on record over the past year, and its labor force continued to shrink. Many of those leaving have cited the pandemic restrictions as well as China’s crackdown on the city’s freedoms. Meanwhile, rivals such as Singapore that reopened sooner have lured businesses and tourists.
The relaxation comes ahead of a meeting of Chinese Communist Party leaders in Beijing, where President Xi Jinping is expected to secure a third term even amid discontent over his “zero covid” policy.
Hong Kong officials had long hewed closely to that “zero” goal, though without the more extreme measures seen in the mainland. Arriving passengers were forced to spend up to three weeks confined to a hotel room. Residents who tested positive were routinely shipped off to spartan isolation rooms — with parents sometimes separated from their children. The city still enforces mandatory mask-wearing and limits on gathering sizes.
Brian Leung, an American who works in health care, left Hong Kong in June after more than a decade. He said he moved to Singapore because its covid policy was based “more on scientific decisions, rather than political” considerations.
“Hong Kong was a great city, but with how it coped with the pandemic, a lot of weaknesses came out,” Leung said, adding that some of the covid rules had been “inhumane.” “We were scarred by that.”
While some other places in East Asia have been slow to reopen, the severing of Hong Kong’s links with the world hit especially hard because of its role as a global financial capital. At least 45 airlines stopped flying to what was previously one of the world’s busiest aviation hubs.
“A lot of airlines will be keeping an eye on Hong Kong but will be reluctant to commit anything to the market until they see clear evidence that the restrictions are being removed and more importantly … will not be reintroduced,” Willie Walsh, director general of the International Air Transport Association, said in a media briefing this month.
To kick-start Hong Kong’s reopening, the city intends to host a financial forum and a rugby Sevens tournament in November.
Epidemiologists, business leaders and even pro-Beijing politicians had called for the government to relax the quarantine requirements, expressing worries about sacrificing the city’s competitiveness for a virus that has become less of a threat because of effective vaccines, improved treatments and increased immunity.
What’s more, the border controls didn’t stop the virus from leaking in. For a time, Hong Kong had the developed world’s highest death rate from covid-19, owing to its failure to adequately vaccinate its elderly population. The city has reported thousands of coronavirus cases a day for months.
Ending quarantine may do little to boost the economy in the short run, experts said.
Terence Chong Tai-leung, an economics professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said he did not expect a “huge immediate effect,” because Hong Kong’s fortunes are closely tied to China, which remains largely closed. Without mainland tourists, a huge portion of Hong Kong’s retail sales dried up.
John Mullally, managing director at recruitment consultancy Robert Walters, welcomed Friday’s “really good first step” but predicted it could take “three years for the city to take back its pre-pandemic caliber and … talent to trickle back in.” He estimated that about 15 to 17 percent of foreign and mainland Chinese finance workers have left Hong Kong.
After their extended isolation, Hong Kongers were desperate to book trips on Friday. Users jammed the websites of airlines Cathay Pacific and HK Express, and ticket prices soared.
Tiffany Yiu, who works in jewelry, said Hong Kong’s gradual reopening was a “relief.” The 29-year-old, who hasn’t traveled since late 2019, had been planning a trip to Thailand in December but said she would wait for the flight-booking rush to pass so she could get more affordable tickets.
“Everyone has been patient and waited for a very long time,” she said. “I so look forward to traveling and also have learned not to take it for granted.”
David Crawshaw in Sydney contributed to this report.