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Hong Kong to close restaurants and ban flights on omicron scare

City imposes toughest COVID measures since December 2020

Hong Kong will ban dine-in services after 6 p.m. and cancel large-scale events on worries about omicron spreading in the city.   © Reuters

HONG KONG -- Hong Kong will impose stricter COVID measures for the first time in over a year as the city records increasing cases of the omicron variant of coronavirus, the city's leader Carrie Lam announced on Wednesday.

Hong Kong will ban dine-in services after 6 p.m., cancel large-scale events, close bars, theme parks, gyms and 12 other types of venues for two weeks starting Friday. Flights from eight countries will also be banned after the city found its first locally transmitted infection that authorities were not able to trace.

Passenger flights from Australia, Canada, France, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, the U.K. and the U.S. will not be allowed to land for 14 days beginning Saturday, and travelers who have transited through those countries will also be prevented from flying, Lam said.

"Hong Kong is currently facing a rapidly deteriorating situation. This may affect the public's safety and also waste our anti-epidemic efforts. That's why we have to do this," she told reporters after an emergency meeting with government health advisers.

The government is also canceling the Cyclothon, a mass cycling event, and shutting down Disney Land and other theme parks, cruise ship tours, nightclubs, beauty spas, and karaoke venues for 14 days starting Friday.

The tough measures come as the city faces a "major dire outbreak" after it recorded its first untraceable local transmission of coronavirus on Tuesday. An unvaccinated man with no travel history developed symptoms and is believed to be carrying the highly transmissible omicron variant.

Hong Kong has maintained a "zero-COVID" strategy and only recorded its first local COVID case last week, breaking a near-three month streak. It has maintained harsh quarantine measures designed to prevent the virus from entering the community. The last time the government imposed social distancing measures was in December 2020 when the city underwent similar restrictions, which were relaxed just before the Lunar New Year in 2021.

Health authorities had urged the government to tighten restrictions and introduce a vaccine mandate, after a local case linked to a Cathay Pacific aircrew was detected last week. Hong Kong, with a population of 7.5 million, has so far recorded 12,799 cases.

Unvaccinated residents will not be allowed to enter restaurants and other venues from the end of February, triggering an uptick in vaccination appointments and the opening of additional vaccine centers. Only 69.5% of the territory's population have had two doses of vaccines. The vaccination rate among the elderly has also remained low.

On Tuesday, a Royal Caribbean "cruise to nowhere" ship was ordered to return to port ahead of schedule after nine of roughly 2,500 passengers were found to be close contacts of a positive case. Hong Kong has restricted cruises to short trips, with ships asked to operate at reduced capacity and to only allow vaccinated passengers who test negative for the virus.

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