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Hong Kong bans flights from the U.S., imposes other new COVID-19 restrictions

Passengers looking out from their room aboard cruise ship
Thousands of passengers aboard the Spectrum of the Seas cruise ship, docked in Hong Kong, are being held for coronavirus testing.
(Vincent Yu / Associated Press)

Hong Kong authorities announced a two-week ban on flights from the United States and seven other countries and held 2,500 passengers on a cruise ship for coronavirus testing Wednesday as the city attempted to stem an emerging Omicron-fueled coronavirus outbreak.

The two-week ban on passenger flights from Australia, Canada, France, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Britain and the U.S. will take effect Sunday and continue until Jan. 21.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam also announced that restaurant dining would be forbidden after 6 p.m. for two weeks starting Friday. Game arcades, bars and beauty salons must also close during that period.

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“We have to contain the pandemic to ensure that there will not be a major outbreak in the community again,” Lam said at a news conference, adding that the city was “on the verge” of another surge.

The measures came as new clusters of Omicron variant infections have emerged over the past week, many linked to several Cathay Pacific crew members who broke isolation rules and dined at restaurants and bars in the city before testing positive.

Hong Kong has reported 114 Omicron variant cases as of Tuesday, with most coming in from abroad. On Tuesday, it reported its first untraceable case in nearly three months, which authorities said was likely caused by the Omicron variant.

California has reported a massive backlog of 237,084 new coronavirus cases, pushing the seven-day average of new infections to 50,267, a record high.

Hong Kong officials have moved swiftly to block the spread of the variant, locking down residential buildings where people have tested positive and mass-testing thousands of people.

That includes about 2,500 passengers who were being held Wednesday on a cruise ship in Hong Kong for coronavirus tests, after health authorities said nine passengers were linked to an Omicron cluster and ordered the ship to turn back.

Authorities forced the Royal Caribbean’s Spectrum of the Seas ship, which departed Sunday on a “cruise to nowhere,” to return a day early Wednesday, according to a government statement.

The ship returned to Hong Kong on Wednesday morning, and passengers were being kept on board while they awaited testing.

Israel’s record number of new coronavirus infections, driven by the Omicron variant, comes as the country rolls out fourth vaccine doses for some.

One passenger, Claudy Wong, said Royal Caribbean had tried its best to follow pandemic regulations.

“The pandemic has gone on for so long, actually passengers like us who board the cruise are already prepared for such situations to happen,” Wong said.

Royal Caribbean said in a statement that the nine guests were immediately isolated and all tested negative, and that the company was working closely with authorities to comply with epidemic-prevention policies and regulations.

It said guests who were on the affected ship would receive a 25% refund on their cruise fare. The ship’s next sailing Thursday was canceled because the crew must undergo testing, and those guests will receive a full refund.

The city has reported a cumulative total of 12,690 confirmed coronavirus infections as of Tuesday, including 213 deaths.


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