Hong Kong confirmed on Thursday it will ease some of the world's most stringent COVID-19 restrictions, allowing beauty parlours, cinemas and gyms to reopen from April 21 as infections in the global financial hub hover below 2,000 per day.
The Chinese-ruled city has been hit by a fifth wave of coronavirus since early this year that has battered business and led to more than 8,600 deaths, many in the past two months, although cases have dropped in recent days.
Coronavirus restrictions have battered businesss and helped fuel a net outflow of around 70,000 people in February and March, up from nearly 17,000 in December, raising concerns over the city's status as a global financial centre.
The government said on Thursday up to four people could gather at any time from April 21, up from two currently, and restaurants could stay open until 10 p.m., extending opening hours for dining venues across the city from 6 p.m. Schools are also due to resume face-to-face classes from next week.
Bars, beaches and barbeque sites remain closed.
"Cases have dropped from a peak of over 70,000 a day to over 1,000 today; if the ... government still doesn't relax (the restrictions), I think it'll have a big impact to Hong Kong's society and economy," Chief Executive Carrie Lam said at a press briefing.
The humber of daily infections in Hong Kong have been below 2,000 for a week, and the city recorded 1,272 cases on Wednesday.
Hong Kong's border has effectively been shut since 2020 with few flights able to land and hardly any passengers allowed to transit, isolating a city that had built a reputation as a global hub.
For some businesses, the relaxations may be too late as many restaurants say they have had to lay off staff as they struggle to pay rent in one of the world's most expensive real estate markets.
Until this year, Hong Kong had been far more successful at controlling the coronavirus than many other cities its size, but the latest wave of infections swamped its world-class medical system, and public confidence in the city government is at an all-time low.
(Reporting By Clare Jim and Jessie Pang, Writing by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)