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Hong Kong’s travel bubble bursts as city enters fourth wave of COVID-19

Hong Kong’s much vaunted plan for a “travel bubble” allowing passengers to fly quarantine-free to Singapore went bust on Saturday, the day before it was supposed to launch, as Hong Kong counted 43 new cases of coronavirus—rocketing the city onto its fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In light of the situation in Hong Kong, I think it’s the responsible way to put this back for a while, and then sort of relaunch it at a suitable juncture,” Hong Kong’s secretary for commerce and economic development Edward Yau said at a press briefing on Saturday, popping the travel bubble.

Under the agreement struck between the Hong Kong and Singapore governments, the normal 14-day quarantine arrangements would have been waived for passengers travelling between the two cities. The first flight was due to leave on Sunday but have now been postponed by at least two weeks. Passengers can still fly between the two cities, but will need to undergo quarantine upon arrival.

The plan had allowed for a single daily flight, each way, carrying a maximum of 200 passengers. But the “bubble” would be scrapped if either city reported five cases of untraceable local transmission across a seven-day average.

On Saturday, Hong Kong hit an average of four untraceable cases, from a total of 43 that day. On Sunday, Hong Kong reported an additional 68 cases, bringing the average above five, and the accumulated caseload in the city to 5,629 since the pandemic began in January.

Hong Kong lapses

Hong Kong has been effective in limiting transmission of the virus, through quarantine enforcement, readily available tests, social distancing and near universal mask wearing. However, some of the government’s lapses in quarantine measures—such as allowing ship crew to enter the city without isolating—have been criticized for sparking earlier surges in COVID-19 caseloads.

The source of the latest wave of infections is unclear, although authorities are pursuing one cluster that began at a dance academy and has so far resulted in 21 confirmed cases. The government has now mandated that anyone who attended one of 14 dance studios this month to report for testing or face a penalty.

Under new regulations, people who refuse a test can be fined HK$2,000 ($260). Continued refusal can result in a HK$25,000 and up to six months in jail. The Hong Kong government is planning to introduce mandatory testing for certain groups—such as a taxi drivers and care home workers—but hasn’t released details on how that will be enforced.

Meanwhile, the government has tightened social distancing restrictions, limiting in-restaurant dining from groups of six down to four, banning live music and dancing (which was only recently reinstated), ordering venues to close at midnight rather than 2 a.m., and prohibiting gatherings of more than four within hotel rooms.

As travel outside of Hong Kong has been heavily restricted this year, so called “staycations” have grown in popularity, as have hotel rooms parties where groups sometimes as large as 30 people meet in a single room. Recently one COVID-19 cluster was linked to a staycation group, prompting the government to crackdown on the activity.

With few other places to go, the limited “bubble” flights to Singapore had proven surprisingly popular. Hong Kong’s flag carrier Cathay Pacific said it had sold out the daily flights for weeks in advance, creating a route that could have brought $12 million a month into the beleaguered airline’s coffers.

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