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By Marius Zaharia and Donny Kwok
HONG KONG (Reuters) -Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam on Tuesday defended herself against criticism for not wearing a mask at newsconferences, saying it was so people could see how "solemn" she was when talking about the coronavirus.
The Chinese-ruled city reported 124 new infections on Tuesday, in stark contrast with many other places reporting tens or hundreds of thousands. Of the 500-plus people in hospital with COVID-19, none was experiencing severe symptoms.
But the discovery in Hong Kong at the end of last year of some local transmissions after a clean streak of three months led to the imposition of restrictions that have made the global financial hub one of the world's most isolated major cities.
Lam has been criticised on social media and by some health experts for not wearing a mask while asking people in the former British colony to follow the strict rules her government has reimposed.
Lam told a weekly press conference her decision not to wear a mask during media briefings was "well thought out" and that she wears one at other times.
"Now I am very sombre, I am very solemn, because I am very worried. People need to understand and feel my feelings," Lam said. "I'm not going to smile to you or look very relaxed or casual. This is a very solemn occasion."
Microbiologist Yuen Kwok-yung, one of Lam's top COVID-19 advisers known in Hong Kong for wearing face masks shaped like a duck beak, was quoted by media on Monday as saying "when we are experts or leaders, we must set examples ourselves".
The last time Hong Kong was subject to such stern restrictions was in 2020, during the early months of the pandemic.
Schools, pubs and gyms have been shut, with restaurants closing at 6 p.m and many people working from home. Very few flights are allowed to land and hardly any allowed to transit.
Last week, Hong Kong authorities enraged pet lovers with an order to cull more than 2,000 hamsters after tracing an outbreak to a worker in a shop where 11 hamsters tested positive.
Hong Kong has adopted a strategy similar to mainland China, by aiming to quickly smother any outbreak and prevent infected residents from returning, whereas the trend among governments globally has been towards living with the virus.
By contrast, rival finance hub Singapore, with a population three quarters that of Hong Kong, is reporting 3,000 new infections a day, but has eased curbs, including border controls. It maintains a mask-wearing mandate, limits group dining and operates a vaccine pass in shopping malls.
But only around 70% of people in Hong Kong are double-vaccinated, compared with some 90% in Singapore. Most of Hong Kong's elderly have not taken a single vaccine shot.
On Tuesday, Lam urged people to avoid gatherings and family reunions over the Lunar New Year at the start of February and reiterated that social restrictions were unlikely to be relaxed after the break as initially hoped.
"This wave of the outbreak is vicious," Lam said.
(Reporting by the Hong Kong newswroom; writing by Marius Zaharia; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Michael Perry and Nick Macfie)