Hong Kong clamps down on travelers from China as coronavirus infections spike

January 28, 2020, 11:16 AM UTC

Governments, companies and international health organizations rushed to contain a SARS-like coronavirus that has claimed more than 100 lives, with Hong Kong the latest to announce travel restrictions on people moving in and out of the mainland.

Hong Kong will close some border checkpoints and restrict flights and train services from the mainland, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said Tuesday. The Chinese government is also suspending visas for visitors to the territory, she said.

The new measures mark a step change in efforts to contain the virus, after China effectively locked down about 50 million people in Wuhan and Hubei province, the epicenter of the outbreak. The latest moves are aimed at protecting an Asian financial hub where many of the world’s biggest banks and companies have significant operations — and which has already been reeling from months of anti-Beijing protests.

“We have to start with the source,” Lam said at a press conference, wearing a surgical mask. “This should greatly reduce visitors from China.”

Other disruptions to global businesses, travel and the world’s second-largest economy are growing. China has extended the Lunar New Year holiday, while companies are shutting stores and evacuating workers.

The spread of the illness has reignited concerns over global growth, with stocks continuing a selloff in Asia on Tuesday. China’s markets remained closed for the holiday but the country’s securities regulator told investors to evaluate the impact of the virus objectively.

The new moves to contain the disease come as the death toll in China reached 106, while confirmed cases soared 65% to 4,515. Almost all of the deaths have occurred in Hubei province. While infections have been reported throughout Asia as well as in the U.S., France and Canada, the numbers overseas have been much lower.

Germany confirmed its first case on Tuesday, a 33-year-old man in Bavaria. He was one of the first patients to fall ill with the virus outside China without having traveled to the country, officials said. Instead, he became infected after a visit from a Chinese colleague, they said.

Effective at midnight on Thursday, all rail services from the mainland to Hong Kong will be suspended while flights will be reduced by half, Lam said. Cross-border ferry services will also be halted. Before announcing the new curbs on individual travelers, who accounted for almost half of Chinese tourists in Hong Kong last year, Beijing had moved to restrict group travel.

As global anxiety over the outbreak grows, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus visited Beijing to meet with government officials. In a meeting with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, he commended China on the public health measures it has taken.

“We can see the speed and scale with which you are really hitting the virus hard,” Tedros said. “This is something we appreciate and also respect you for what you are doing.”

Last week, the WHO declined to label the coronavirus an international emergency, a designation that would have allowed the United Nations agency to begin coordinating government responses.

Chinese officials have conceded the virus isn’t yet under control, and public anger has grown over its response. While it’s too early to assess the full impact of the virus on China, if the country fails to get a grip on the situation, it could derail a fragile stabilization in the world economy after Beijing and Washington reached agreement on a phase one trade deal.

Economic Impact

With the restrictions on travel and an extended holiday, it’s already clear the virus is hurting consumption and tourism. Industrial production will also be hit just as factories would normally be getting back into full swing following the Lunar New Year break.

Global corporations are also clamping down, restricting travel to China and urging employees in the region — or those who have recently returned from China — to work from home. Fast Retailing Co. has closed about 100 Uniqlo stores in China, mostly in Hubei, according to a company spokeswoman.

Nissan Motor Co. planned to join automakers evacuating workers from the hardest hit areas, while Carnival Corp. and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. suspended nine voyages leaving China Jan. 25 to Feb. 4 and promised refunds to customers.

In Hong Kong, the government has asked civil servants to work from home and announced the temporary closing of sports and cultural facilities starting Wednesday, including museums, swimming pools, public libraries and soccer pitches.

Evacuation Plans

The U.S. and other nations — including France, Japan, South Korea and Australia — were negotiating with China to arrange flights to evacuate diplomats, personnel and citizens from the hardest-hit areas of the country.

State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said the U.S. was working with Chinese authorities to bring back American consulate personnel and other citizens from Wuhan. Ortagus said travelers would be “screened and monitored to protect their health as well as the health and safety of their fellow Americans here at home.”

A couple wearing face masks wait on a MTR underground metro train platform in Hong Kong on Jan. 27, 2020, as a preventative measure following a coronavirus outbreak that began in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
ANTHONY WALLACE—AFP/Getty Images

Japan, planned to send a chartered plane Tuesday evening to repatriate the first 200 of some 650 nationals who want to return, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said in Tokyo.

Evacuations have been complicated by the blanket travel restrictions imposed on a large part of central China to prevent the disease from spreading.

The WHO’s Tedros urged countries not to overreact, saying the agency doesn’t encourage them to evacuate citizens, according to a Xinhua report.

Travel Alert

The U.S. State Department raised its travel alert to the second-highest of four levels, saying citizens should reconsider travel to China while avoiding travel to the area near Wuhan.

The U.S. may also expand travel screening at its borders and is closely monitoring 110 people to stop the virus, testing them for presence of the pathogen. As of Monday morning, there have been no new U.S. cases after the first five patients were identified in the past week.

Anxiety is growing amid evidence that the disease has an incubation period of as long as two weeks before those infected start to show symptoms. That raises the possibility that people could travel and eventually infect others before realizing they have the illness.

So far there has been no clear evidence that the virus can spread during the incubation period before patients have symptoms, according to Nancy Messonnier, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

“At this time in the U.S., this virus is not spreading in the community,” Messonnier said.