Mon, May 12, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Hong Kong begins to shed masks as weather heats up

CLEAR VIEW The move is sure to delight business and government chiefs in an area that has been hit hard in the pocket by the effects of the SARS outbreak


SARS turned Hong Kong into a masked city, but with new infections dropping sharply and warmer weather making them a stuffy proposition, many people are wondering if it's time to take them off.

Business leaders worry the masks are further tarnishing Hong Kong's image, which has been hard hit by SARS.

"You can't see our smile when we put the masks on," said James Lu, executive director of the Hong Kong Hotels Association, whose members have seen business collapse amid the SARS outbreak. "As soon as SARS is over, we'd like to have burn-the-masks day," he said.

Health officials say there is no reason for Hong Kong people to wear surgical masks as they go about their daily routines, but hundreds of thousands have been doing so since the SARS outbreak in March.

SARS has infected 1,674 people here and killed 212, but the number of new daily infections has dropped into the single digits over the past week.

Meanwhile, warmer weather in subtropical Hong Kong has made the masks more uncomfortable in recent days, and fewer people seem to be wearing them.

There were far more visible faces than masked ones yesterday in Hong Kong Park, but people riding buses were mostly masked.

But many say the masks make them feel safer, or at least psychologically better.

"My head gets very hot when I wear a mask," said 35-year-old waitress Angel Mok, who's worn one for almost two months. "But I think it's safer to put it on until the day when we have zero infections."

Others say the masks should go.

"We should stop wearing them -- the numbers of people getting sick have been low," said Chan Tat-yuen, whose employers at the Ying Kee Tea Co are required to wear masks on the job.

SARS fears closed down Hong Kong's public schools for weeks, and those that have reopened require students and teachers to wear masks. Officials also require daily temperature checks of everybody in the schools.

Math instructor Leung Yiu-chung said that if nobody in the classroom is sick, there's no point in the masks. They make life uncomfortable for teachers who have to talk for hours, and many students have been drifting off to sleep behind their stuffy masks.

Hong Kong's Health Department says people with respiratory symptoms should wear masks to prevent spreading germs, and health care workers must wear masks and take other stringent precautions against SARS.

Masks can help stop the disease from spreading through droplets from sneezing and coughing, experts say.

But global health officials say there's no real need for people to put on masks everywhere they go. Some used masks turn up as litter on city streets and on Hong Kong's rural mountain trails and beaches.

"People on the street are not contracting it simply by walking by somebody who has the disease," said Dick Thompson, a spokesman for the Geneva-based World Health Organization, which put out the global alert on SARS.

Washing hands is a more important precaution, Thompson said, adding that he would not put on a mask to walk through congested Hong Kong streets.

But if it makes people feel better, they should go ahead and wear them, Thompson said.

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