There was a surprise for government-watchers when it was reported that our new bosom buddies in Saudi Arabia had been told there were now no Covid-related restrictions at all in Hong Kong.
This was, at best, a rather slippery use of language. We are still required to wear face masks in public and some individuals – mostly politically inconvenient ones, doubtless by coincidence – have been penalised for appearing bare-faced in public.
I suppose your friendly local nit-picker will say that being required to wear something is not in the strict sense of the word a restriction, it is an instruction. But it feels like a restriction for many of us.
Perhaps the government was just getting a bit ahead of itself. We are expecting to drop the mask requirement any time now. This is a good thing, because one of the less inspiring features of the rule of law in Hong Kong is that you can in theory currently be penalised for not wearing a mask, or instead for wearing one.
This poses a dilemma for the law-abiding which is not one of the “good stories” we are so eagerly seeking these days.
The interesting question for a lot of people will be what happens next. When it is no longer a requirement to wear a mask will people continue to do so most of the time, only in crowded places, or not at all?
Clearly at present there is considerable social pressure backing up the law, at least in places like shopping malls and railway carriages. If in a moment of forgetfulness you have turned up without a mask you will feel naked. And some helpful souls will remind you with interesting gestures that you are missing something.
Personally, I always keep a mask folded up in a back pocket for moments like this.
In the open air the situation is a bit more ambiguous. Officially you are allowed, if I understand the advice correctly, to take your mask off while exercising, though not in government facilities for indoor exercise.
My personal observation of the dog-walking and hiking population is that about three quarters of these people wear a mask all the time, or slip one on when they see me coming before I see them. Half of the rest have a mask either worn on the chin or on a wrist, which may be put on as they approach a mask wearer. And the rest have no visible mask, although of course they may have one in a pocket for emergencies like the appearance of a police person.
An interesting thing is the effect of minibus queues. People in such queues are all masked, because the driver will protest if they board naked. So walkers with naked faces coming along the pavement are presented with a small crowd of mask wearers they have to pass, and mask up briefly.
When masks are no longer compulsory the situation will be more complicated. Some people may leave home without a mask. Some may carry one for use if its absence becomes embarrassing. Some will have a personal policy, like masks for malls and MTR; barefaced out of doors.
This is no mere sociological curiosity, because a small industry has appeared catering for mask wearers. There are for example about six shops within a short walk of the Shatin station which sell nothing but masks.
People who are still sporting the traditional medical model, with its horizontal folds in any colour you like as long as it’s white, are missing the opportunity to make a personal statement.
Masks are now offered in a wide variety of colours and patterns. Some of them are topical: holly for Christmas, rabbits for the Lunar New Year and so on. You can get high-tech ones endorsed by the Surgeon General of the United States, and thin filmy ones which probably do more for your legal status than your health. You can have elastic or ribbons, washable or disposable.
The only variation which appears not to be available is political expression, since an incident two years ago when local sedition-spotters complained about a mask with FDNOL on it in tiny letters.
It is difficult to believe that this flourishing market will survive the removal of legal compulsion. Waves of retail enthusiasm traditionally come and go in Hong Kong. I remember years ago when video game machines first appeared and arcades became as common as rice shops used to be.
Legislators complained that rival offerings of more social utility were being driven out of business by the growth of play places. Age restrictions were imposed to protect the gullible young. Proprietors were required to allocate a certain amount of space for each machine. Critics complained that the space required for a game machine was bigger than the space allocated to each public housing tenant. But of course the health of the machines was not the purpose of the rule.
Then video gaming migrated to the personal computer and gamers could rot their brains in the privacy of their own homes. Games arcades are now hard to find. I fear the same fate may be in store for mask shops.
From a medical point of view this is probably a shame. Apparently when we were all taking Covid precautions a lot of less publicity-conscious microbes had a hard time finding victims; many seasonal diseases missed their usual appearance.
On the other hand I am told by people who have started travelling again that it is really nice to be surrounded by naked faces. So masks will have to go.
This will leave us with a large supply of unwanted masks, looking for somewhere where naked faces are still not welcome. Well, some places still discourage naked female faces. Perhaps our new friends in Saudi Arabia…?
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