Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam (2nd L) speaks during a press conference on the citys COVID-19 novel coronavirus situation at the government headquarters in Hong Kong on May 5, 2020. Picture: ANTHONY WALLACE / AFP
Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam (2nd L) speaks during a press conference on the citys COVID-19 novel coronavirus situation at the government headquarters in Hong Kong on May 5, 2020. Picture: ANTHONY WALLACE / AFP

Hong Kong — Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam moved on Tuesday to loosen curbs on social gatherings and other coronavirus measures, as a lull in infections set the stage for fresh political battles over the future of the Asian financial hub.

Lam raised the number of people permitted at restaurant tables from to eight from four and said gyms and cinemas would be allowed to reopen. Bars would also reopen with capacity restrictions. Live music performances and dancing will not be permitted. The changes would go into effect Friday. Schools would also resume in phases from May 27.

“Experts are of the view it’s time to relax some of the measures to some extent,” she told reporters. “But I must stress that the epidemic may flip-flop in a way, and we must remain vigilant continuously.”

While relaxing social-distancing measures vindicates Hong Kong’s strategy to fight the virus, it also could facility the return of pro-democracy protests that rocked the former British colony last year. Activists have already held several demonstrations inside mall in recent days, and opposition legislators are hoping to rebuild political mobilisation will that can help them secure a majority on the city’s elected legislative council in September.

Even as Lam prepared to loosen the virus curbs, two of her predecessors led a news conference to announce a new “Hong Kong coalition” of 1,500 business leaders and pro-establishment figures. The group led by former CEOs Tung Chee-hwa and Leung Chun-ying said they wanted to promote economic recovery, oppose violence and support the “one country, two systems” China has used to govern the city since the British left in 1997.

The group’s supporters includes the city’s richest man, Li Ka-shing and his sons Victor Li and Richard Li, as well as members from the Kwok family, which owns the city’s largest developer Sun Hung Kai Properties. It was unclear what role the organisation would play in the upcoming elections, though it planned an event on Saturday to distribute masks.

“It’s for election purposes, to kind of help street-level mobilisation and also on the government campaign theme against the democrats,” said Ma Ngok, a professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong’s department of government and public administration.

“They’re trying to take advantage of the economic situation,” Ma said. “That’s kind of a conservative tone, which I think is in line with the propaganda of the pro-Beijing press in recent weeks.”

The Asian financial hub, which has suffered its worst economic quarter on record, has mostly contained Covid-19 through a mix of early social-distancing measures starting in late January, travel restrictions, contact tracing and mandatory quarantines.

Hong Kong has reported zero new daily cases for 10 of the past 16 days and has not seen a virus-related death since mid-March. Almost all of the newer infections were found in people with a recent travel history.

©2020 Bloomberg