Hong Kong Disney Opens as COVID-19 Eases; Shanghai Deaths Rise

Hong Kong relaxed pandemic restrictions on Thursday, with Disneyland and museums reopening and nighttime restaurant dining resuming as the city's worst COVID-19 outbreak appears to be fading.

Enthusiastic visitors ran into Disneyland the moment the gates opened after a three-month closure.

Popular theme parks were ordered to close in January as Hong Kong's fifth wave of the coronavirus took hold. Nearly 1.2 million people in the city of 7.4 million were infected in less than four months, and nearly 9,000 have died.

"Since Christmas we haven't been back here, my daughter's really happy, she's been waiting so long," said Joyce Mak, 36, who brought her young daughter to Disneyland. "Last night she was so excited, she didn't want to go to sleep."

The city was caught off guard as the surge, driven by highly transmissible omicron variant, overwhelmed hospitals. At the peak of the outbreak, bodies were stored in refrigerated containers because mortuaries were overwhelmed.

The easing of restrictions came after officials acknowledged that people were getting frustrated with the measures, and that there must be a balance between fighting the epidemic and resumption of normal activities.

The relaxation of measures before Hong Kong has reached zero COVID-19 cases marks a shift from the city's earlier strategy, which was aligned to mainland China's zero-tolerance for any outbreaks. Previously, authorities were reluctant to ease measures until it was clear that outbreaks in the city were stamped out.

A 15-year-old student, Cynthia Cheung, said Disneyland was her "happiest place."

"It's been such a long time since coming here, last time was in December," she said. "I really missed it."

Theme parks can now operate at 50% capacity, and visitors must show proof of vaccination. Disney employees held up signs reminding people to keep social distance.

In mainland China, the death toll rose to 25 in an outbreak in Shanghai that has all but shut down the country's largest city. Health authorities said Thursday that eight more people had died in the previous day. The relatively low number of reported deaths highlights China's use of much narrower criteria than the rest of the world for its pandemic statistics.

Shanghai has eased the lockdown somewhat in areas that have not reported new cases in seven to 14 days, allowing residents out of their homes but still restricting them to their compounds or neighborhoods. Some said on social media that they dare not venture out anyway, wary of entering nearby areas that have had recent cases.

Officials said this week that 12.3 million people in the city of 25 million are now in "control" or "prevention" areas, which are less restrictive than lockdown zones in a three-tier system. That is 4 million more than 10 days ago, they said.

However, one of the city's 16 districts announced Thursday that no residents would be allowed to leave their compounds. The Jing'an district in central Shanghai said that even those in prevention areas, the least restrictive zone, would no longer be able to venture into the surrounding neighborhood.

The city reported 18,495 new local cases on Thursday, including 15,861 without symptoms.

In eastern Shanghai, some residents were ordered to leave their homes while health workers carried out a large-scale disinfection following a spike in infections, according to news reports and social media posts.

It wasn't clear how many people in Beicai town were affected. The area's population is nearly 300,000. Phone calls to the municipal government weren't answered. Photos published by The Paper, an online news outlet, showed workers in hooded, white protective suits spraying disinfectant in homes.

In Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous Chinese region, attractions such as Ocean Park and M+ museum reopened Thursday. Gyms, beauty salons and massage parlors were also allowed to resume business. Customers must have at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and scan a QR code upon entry for contact-tracing purposes.

Restaurants, which had been barred from providing dine-in service after 6 p.m., can reopen in the evening, although each table is capped at four guests.

Hong Kong reported 603 locally spread infections Thursday, down more than 99% from the peak of more than 30,000 in March.

Source: Voice of America