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Beijing comes cautiously back to life

Betsy Joles Beijing
April 1, 2020

As the coronavirus outbreak in China dies down, people in Beijing begin venturing onto the streets, seeking normalcy. The longer-term economic implications of the two-month disruption remain unclear.

A man wearing a mask for protection against COVID-19 points at a kite in Taoranting Park in Beijing, China
Image: DW/Betsy Joles

For the first time in months, Sofia Ci looked out onto Beijing's Second Ring Road — a thoroughfare encircling the city's center — on a recent Monday evening to see a line of cars closely packed together. "There's traffic!" she recalled thinking as she took a picture of the scene that would normally cause consternation in the city of more than 21 million.

Busy streets, usually the norm in Beijing, were mostly empty for weeks as much of the country shut down starting in late January to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Beijing went into a state of quasi hibernation as the number of confirmed cases of the virus in the country rose, and people isolated themselves in their homes. Restaurants closed, public places emptied, and neighborhoods sealed themselves off, with community volunteers taking temperatures and policing anyone who came in or out.

Read more: Doubts over China's claim of beating coronavirus

But after more than two months of uncharacteristic quiet, China's capital has started to slowly come back to life as people leave their houses and take to public spaces. Parks are gathering growing crowds in time for the spring blossoms, and businesses that were shuttered or delivery-only are beginning to reopen. Ci, 31, originally from Shandong province in eastern China, said the revival is heartening for people who were shut inside for weeks as the city came to a halt. "I think life is starting to get normal," she said.

Social life in the city has also started to return in fits and starts, with bars and restaurants putting up signs that ban entry for anyone who arrived back to Beijing in the past 14 days. One barkeeper at an establishment in Jiaodaokou in Dongcheng District said they reopened and were shut down again by the local government. "We have to stop for a few days, let's rock again when we come back," says a sign on the front door. On a recent weeknight, the space was open again and crowded with mostly foreigners, mask free and gathered in clusters around the upstairs bar.

Women wearing masks for protection against COVID-19 walk on Wangfujing shopping street in Beijing, China
Those who leave their homes can expect to have their temperatures taken over and overImage: DW/Betsy Joles

There remain restrictions in place around the city: Shopping malls and businesses still require visitors to provide their name, phone number and get their temperature taken before entering, and some require people to input more detailed information by first scanning a QR code. Apartment compounds restrict non-residents from entering, and some people remain wary of venturing back out. Ci said decisions to socialize depend on whether friends are deciding to stick with their self-imposed quarantine. "If they still feel like 'I'm staying home, don't come to visit me,' I have video calls with them," she said.

Second wave

The city's slow revival comes as other cities around the world shut down to prevent and slow the spread of the disease, spurring fears of a second wave of infections in China. According to state media CGTN, China has recorded more than 700 cases of COVID-19 brought from other countries, mostly from Chinese returning home. The Chinese government has taken strict measures to control a second wave of the outbreak brought from people coming back to the city from other countries.

In mid-March, China mandated anyone arriving in Beijing from outside the country must quarantine for 14 days in a state-appointed hotel at their own expense. Late last month, China announced it would temporarily suspend entry into China by foreign nationals with residence permits or other valid visas.

Elsewhere in China life is returning more slowly. In Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus that was first identified late last year, initial restrictions on the city's lockdown began to loosen in late March to allow some residents to return to work and move outside their communities. The lockdown is only fully expected to be lifted on April 8.

People wearing face masks ride bikes in Beijing
Life is returning to the cityImage: Reuters/G. Rawlins

But the longer-term effects of the months of stagnation are also felt by workers who now have to think about job security in a shaky economy. Ci works as a project manager at an international exhibition company in Beijing and said her job prospects are uncertain as domestic and international business fairs and expos are getting scrapped around the world. "We have no work to do," she said. "I don't know if I should prepare my portfolio and my CV for a new job."

Ci has been taking an online course in management during her extended work from home period and anticipating when she'll be able to return to her hometown in Shandong to visit her family —without having to quarantine when she gets back to Beijing. While she's not sure when she will be able to travel next for her job, she said she would be satisfied with even smaller signs of sustained normalcy: her favorite fried chicken restaurant reopening, for example.

With the first rise of infections in five days, China's National Health Commission released information for the first time on Wednesday about asymptomatic cases and started requiring such people to quarantine for 14 days.

Despite uncertainty about whether the threat has fully passed, Ci said she's trying to remain positive, hoping what's being done to contain the virus will lead to Beijing's revival in full.

"I choose to trust. Or what else can I do?" she said.

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