By Jessie Pang and Felix Tam
HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong authorities on Sunday barred residents of China’s Hubei province, the center of the coronavirus outbreak, from entering the city, in response to mounting pressure to enact preventative measures to contain the spreading epidemic.
The ban includes those who have been in the province in the past 14 days but excludes Hong Kong citizens.
Earlier a group of protesters set alight the lobby of a newly built residential building in Hong Kong that authorities planned to use as a quarantine facility for the coronavirus outbreak.
A Reuters witness saw several masked protesters, clad in black, rush into the public housing block in the Fanling district near to the border with China, and set alight a Molotov cocktail. Black smoke could be seen pouring out of the building to the sound of fire alarms. Windows were smashed.
Firefighters managed to extinguish the fire and the damage appeared to be confined to the lobby area. Hundreds of riot police also moved in, arresting at least one person.
As fears about the virus outbreak intensify, calls have grown for Hong Kong’s government to close the financial hub’s border with mainland China to minimize the risk of infection.
Earlier, hundreds of Hong Kong citizens had blocked roads leading to the building with bricks and other debris, to protest plans to convert the building into a quarantine zone as the number of confirmed cases in the city climbed to six.
“We are dissatisfied with the government selecting this housing estate as a (quarantine) separation village as it’s very close to a residential area and a primary school,” said a 28-year-old resident surnamed Tsang.
Hong Kong authorities had said they would convert “Fai Ming Estate, an unoccupied public estate in Fanling, into temporary flats for quarantine and observation of close contact persons without symptoms if needed.”
Following the protest, the government said it would “cease the related preparation work in Fai Ming Estate.”
Hong Kong has been convulsed with demonstrations over the last seven months centered on Hong Kong’s relationship with mainland China: with some protesters railing against what they see as growing interference from Beijing. Beijing denies meddling and blames the West for stirring trouble in the former British colony.
Hong Kong authorities have so far refused to categorically block the flow of visitors from mainland China across several land border crossings. Direct train and flight connections to and from Wuhan have been suspended.
Health authorities in the afternoon said 107 people were under quarantine, and there were 77 suspected cases.
The ability of the new coronavirus to spread is strengthening and infections could continue to rise, China’s National Health Commission said on Sunday, with nearly 2,000 people in China infected and 56 killed by the disease.
(Additional reporting Tyrone Siu and Aleksander Solum in Hong Kong, Ben Blanchard in Taipei; Writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Toby Chopra and Louise Heavens)