Thousands of Hongkongers camped out overnight in the cold after a company said it would release 6,000 boxes of surgical masks for sale during citywide shortages caused by the coronavirus outbreak.
Luck Well International Holdings in Kowloon Bay urged people to stop joining the queue at 1.30am on Wednesday but within hours the desperate crowd had swollen to 10,000.
The company said it expected to sell its entire stock of 11,000 boxes, each containing 50 masks on Wednesday, after abandoning its plan to release them over two days.
“Please stop braving the cold weather and [stop] queuing up … Please take care!” read a Facebook post from the firm in the early hours of Wednesday.
Hong Kong has been hit with shortages of the masks and other hygiene products with the growing number of infections in the city.
Three people were diagnosed with the virus on Tuesday night in Hong Kong, bringing the city’s total to 18. The new patients had not travelled to mainland China in the 14 days before falling ill.
The city recorded its first coronavirus death on Tuesday, a 39-year-old man from Hung Hom. The contagion, which originated in Wuhan, has also killed 490 people in mainland China, and infected more 23,800 people worldwide.
The masks initially went on sale to 3,000 customers at the Tonic Industrial Centre in Kowloon Bay who could buy a maximum of two boxes each at noon on Wednesday.
The firm decided to put a further 5,000 boxes on the shelves on Wednesday, after originally earmarking them for sale on Thursday.
Jerry Law, project manager at Luck Well International Holdings, said it was a shame Hongkongers had to queue for so long to get hold of basic health supplies.
“We feel disheartened that people have to queue for some 20 or 30 hours for masks,” he said.
“Not that Hongkongers can’t afford to buy the masks, but we run out of methods to get them.
“We can count on no one else but ourselves, so we hope other people and businesses can do their part.”
Each box of 50 masks was on sale for HK$80 and had been sourced from Dubai.
The company said it did not have formal certification of the product’s health standards because of time pressures.
“The manufacturers told us it was a surgical mask,” Law said. “Frankly, customers can choose to buy or not, but what we did was only on our conscious.”
The first in line at the Tonic Industrial Centre in Lam Hing Street, where the company is located, had arrived at 3pm on Tuesday.
By that night, there were more than 1,000 people in the queue, as the waiting crowds extended to Kai Cheung Road and Wai Yip Street, before increasing to at least 10,000 by 9.30am.
More than 8,300 people were still hoping to be served at 12.30pm, with the queue stretching for an estimated 4km.
On Wednesday morning, dozens of people were also queuing outside two Mannings stores in Jaffe Road and Lockhart Road in Causeway Bay, after the company restocked supplies.
Shelley Li, a 30-year-old woman who works in the cosmetics industry, started queuing at 6pm on Tuesday to find there were already 200 people ahead of her. “I got the news and came to queue right away overnight,” she said on Wednesday at about 11am.
She was among the many queuing who were angry at the government’s handling of the outbreak, accusing it of failing to ensure sufficient supplies of masks.
“Even the mainland government is doing better than the Hong Kong government. At least the mainland will require everyone to wear masks, but our chief executive said some officials don’t have to wear masks,” Li said.
Annie Wong, in her 50s, was joined in line by her two sisters and three nieces at 7pm on Tuesday to buy 12 packs of 600 masks for three families.
“The government should close the border, at least we would feel more at ease,” she said.
Elsewhere in the city, the Hong Kong Association of Lady Horse Lovers, a group of racehorse owners and horse racing fans, promised to give out up to 100,000 masks to elderly people at a sports ground in Kwun Tong.
It said it would hand out 3,400 tickets on Wednesday, and each ticket holder would get 15 masks for free, a total of 51,000 masks. The association said on Facebook that 400 elderly people were queuing up at 6.30am, and all tickets were given out before 10am.
Meanwhile, the MTR Corporation announced on Wednesday morning that Lo Wu and Lok Ma Chau railway stations, near the border, would be closed. Train services would run as normal between Hung Hom and Sheung Shui.
The Lo Wu and Lok Ma Chau checkpoints, as well as the Hong Kong-Macau Ferry Terminal, were closed on Tuesday as Hong Kong tried to contain the spread of the deadly coronavirus.
All of the city’s checkpoints – except the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, Shenzhen Bay crossing, and the international airport – are now closed.
In a separate development, almost a dozen people on a cruise liner at the Japanese port of Yokohama have tested positive for coronavirus, TV Asahi reported on Wednesday, citing the health ministry.
About 10 people tested positive in the screening, the network reported.
Health screening began on Tuesday for some 3,700 passengers and crew aboard the Diamond Princess, operated by Carnival Japan, after an 80-year-old Hong Kong passenger who sailed on the vessel from Yokohama to Hong Kong last month tested positive for the new coronavirus.
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