The United States on Tuesday accused Chinese state media of publishing "disinformation" about its diplomats in Hong Kong as it denied staff invoked immunity to avoid isolating after positive coronavirus tests.
Washington temporarily closed its consulate Monday to conduct deep cleaning and contact tracing after two employees were infected with the virus.
The consulate – and Hong Kong health authorities – have said the pair were headed to a hospital isolation ward as required by the city's anti-coronavirus rules.
But state media outlets and a leading pro-Beijing trade union have accused the employees of invoking diplomatic immunity, which U.S. officials flat out rejected.
"The disinformation from PRC state media about these two cases not complying with quarantine is false," a State Department spokesperson told AFP.
"We reject these efforts to spread disinformation about a critical public health issue."
The reports of diplomatic immunity first ran on Monday in Dot Dot News, an online news outlet in Hong Kong.
It is part of an opaquely owned media group that answers to Beijing's Liaison Office.
Following the reports, China's state-run Global Times tabloid repeated the diplomatic immunity accusation and accused US officials of "arrogant outlaw behavior."
On Tuesday morning Hong Kong's pro-Beijing leader said the two infected consulate workers were already in hospital and that U.S. officials were complying with regulations.
"I'm happy to notice that the U.S. consulate also issued a press release yesterday saying that they will follow our advice and support our work," chief executive Carrie Lam told reporters.
Nonetheless Hong Kong's largest pro-Beijing labour group – the Federation of Trade Unions – went ahead with a small protest outside the US consulate shortly after Lam finished speaking.
Four members of the union held up banners with slogans that included "No privilege, no exceptions" and "Strong condemnation of virus-spreading behaviour in spite of social morality."
Public gatherings of more than four people are currently banned in Hong Kong because of the coronavirus.
Hong Kong has kept infections low thanks to some of the strictest quarantine measures in the world, recording some 11,000 infections and 200 deaths since the pandemic began.
Relations between the US and China have plunged in recent years, partly because of Beijing's crackdown against dissent in Hong Kong following huge and often violent pro-democracy protests in 2019.