Residents enjoy sunbathing at a beach in the New Territories in Hong Kong as the government relaxes social distancing measures, allowing beaches to reopen on May 5, 2022. (ANDY CHONG / CHINA DAILY)

HONG KONG – Hong Kong reported 321 new COVID-19 cases as the government further relaxed social distancing rules on Thursday.

The new cases comprised 304 local infections and 17 imported cases, Albert Au Ka-wing, principal medical and health officer of the Centre for Health Protection’s communicable disease branch, said in a press briefing.

He added 148 were confirmed through nucleic acid tests and 173 by rapid antigen tests. Wednesday’s figure is slightly higher than the 313 infections on Wednesday and the 290 reported on Tuesday. 

Au said 24 students and two school staff members also tested positive for the virus, as 2,300 schools have resumed face-to-face classes so far, involving some 720,000 students.

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As for the 17 imported cases, 12 were detected at the Hong Kong airport under the “test-and-hold” arrangement, involving travelers from the US, Canada, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Italy, Denmark and Thailand.

The remaining five cases were found at quarantine hotels, involving two travelers from France and three from Singapore, Au said.

Larry Lee Lap-yip, chief manager (Integrated Clinical Services) of the Hospital Authority, said at the same briefing that five patients who tested positive for COVID-19 died over the past 24 hours.

The maximum number of people per table at restaurants is increased from four to eight while mask-free exercising is accepted in outdoor areas

They involved two men and three women. Four of them aged between 86 to 97 while the age of the remaining patient who was sent to the accident and emergency ward of Kwong Wah Hospital with cerebral hemorrhage is yet to confirm.

The total number of infections in Hong Kong’s fifth wave of pandemics rose to 1,193,086 and the number of death increased to 9,120.

As the COVID-19 situation in the financial hub showed signs of stabilizing, the government further relaxed social distancing measures on Thursday in a bid to resume social and economic activities in an orderly manner.

The maximum number of people per table at restaurants is increased from four to eight while mask-free exercising is accepted in outdoor areas. Public beaches were also reopened but users must wear masks at all times except when they are exercising or taking a shower.

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The government said on Tuesday that additional social distancing measures will be eased from May 19 “unless there is a substantial rebound or drastic change in the epidemic situation.”

Dine-in service hours will be extended to 11:59 pm. Bars and pubs can be reopened with service hours up to 1:59 am and a maximum of four people per table. Patrons will be allowed to eat and drink in cinema houses.

Other scheduled premises that are currently closed, including bathhouses, party rooms, clubs or nightclubs, karaoke establishments, mahjong premises and cruise ships may also reopen.