HONG KONG -- Hong Kong will relax some social-distancing measures and reopen shuttered schools after the city reported no locally transmitted coronavirus infections for the 16th consecutive day, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said on Tuesday.
Most businesses that had been closed for the COVID-19 pandemic will be allowed to reopen on Friday, including fitness centers, beauty salons, movie theaters and other recreational venues. The number of people allowed to gather in groups has also been raised from four to eight. Meanwhile, schools will resume in three phases starting on May 27.
"Medical experts that the government consulted agreed that it's time to relax some of the restrictions now," Lam said at an afternoon news conference. "But we should all note that the outbreak may flip-flop anytime, so we must stay vigilant and must not loosen up completely."
Lam said the government is adopting a "suppress and lift" strategy, in which health authorities would introduce tougher measures when the virus transmission rate is high and loosen them when it drops, so as to contain the outbreak at an acceptable social-economic cost.
High-risk venues where infection clusters were found will remain shut, including karaoke bars, nightclubs and party rooms, while bars and cinemas will only be able to operate at partial capacity. Visitors will continue to be required to wear face masks and have their temperatures checked before entering such venues.
The government will distribute to every resident free reusable masks that can be used up to 60 times, upon online registration. A total of 10 single-use masks also will be mailed to each household by the end of June.
The relaxation of measures is expected to boost local consumption ahead of Mother's Day on Sunday, May 10.
The government reported on Tuesday that retail sales in Hong Kong slumped 35% in the first quarter compared with the same period last year, marking the biggest quarterly decline on record.
Anti-virus measures have "brought inbound tourism to a standstill and seriously disrupted consumption-related activities," a government spokesperson said, adding that the business environment for retail will "remain very difficult" in the near-term amid the deep economic recession and the sharp deterioration in the labor market.
"We believe that the anti-epidemic measures will be gradually relaxed, but it doesn't mean that consumer confidence will recover," Annie Yau Tse, chairwoman of the Hong Kong Retail Management Association, said on Tuesday. She expects a 30% to 50% decline in retail sales in the first half of the year.
The retail report came a day after the Hong Kong government said that first-quarter gross domestic product dropped 8.9% compared with the same period a year earlier, falling short of market expectations and marking the city's steepest GDP decline on record.
As of Tuesday, Hong Kong, with a population of about 7.5 million, had reported 1,041 cases of the novel coronavirus and four deaths -- one of the world's lowest rates of infections and fatalities.
Hong Kong has reported no locally transmitted cases since April 19. During that same 16-day period, there have been only a handful of imported cases.
Additional reporting by Nikki Sun.