HONG KONG — For the first time in nearly 1,000 days, Hong Kongers were legally allowed to go out without masks on Wednesday.

But it can take some getting used to.

«It feels a bit weird, I feel naked!» Connie Lin, an artist, said as she passed Times Square in the bustling Causeway Bay shopping district. «I think people in Hong Kong are still worried about covid, that’s why many still wear masks today.»

The Chinese territory’s leader, Chief Executive John Lee, said on Tuesday that masks will no longer be required indoors, outdoors, in schools or on public transport, ending the latest major restriction in a city whose anti-Covid policies were among the toughest in the world. .

Mask-wearing has been an automatic part of daily life in Hong Kong since the beginning of the pandemic, through multiple variants and three long summers of sweltering heat and humidity. Under government rules, failure to comply could, and often did, result in a HK$5,000 ($635) fine.

For people like Hu Xiannan, a student at the University of Hong Kong who donned a mask on Wednesday, it could be a difficult habit to break.

“I can’t even remember my classmates’ faces anymore, but today I was looking at them in class and I was like, ‘Oh, this is what you look like,’” she said with a laugh.

Others have more practical reasons. “I am wearing the mask because I still have a lot at home,” said Yan Wong, a student at Hong Kong Community College.

Nearly everyone on the subway and buses continued to wear masks Wednesday, as did store clerks and vendors interacting with customers. Even outside, many people had masks pulled firmly over their faces, while others kept them tucked under their chins.

In fact, Hong Kong banned masks in October 2019, when it was hit by anti-government protests that sometimes turned violent. Lee’s predecessor, Carrie Lam, invoked an emergency law left over from the city’s days as a British colony to ban the wearing of masks in public assemblies so protesters could not hide their identities.

The irony was not lost on Hong Kong residents when, a few months later, a public health threat emerged in the form of Covid-19, which spread to Hong Kong from mainland China in January 2020.

Like the World Health Organization, the United States and others, the Hong Kong government initially said there was no need for most people to wear masks, saying they should be reserved for medical workers amid a global shortage. .

But Hong Kongers, aware of the 2003 SARS outbreak that killed 299 people here, didn’t wait to be told. Instead, they lined up at pharmacies to buy masks that were being sold at exorbitant prices, and soon mask-wearing was nearly universal.

Combined with social distancing measures, the effect was immediate, and not just in slowing the spread of Covid-19. Experts later said Hong Kong’s 2020 flu season had ended in early February, more than two months earlier than the previous year.