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Workers dismantle Chinese New Year decorations in Beijing
Image: Reuters/C. Garcia Rawlins

Virus fears put damper on Lunar New Year

January 25, 2020

Many celebrations to mark one of China's most important holidays, and the Year of the Rat, have been called off as the coronavirus death toll mounts. Fear and travel restrictions are keeping people at home.


The Chinese Lunar New Year kicked off under somber circumstances on Saturday, with Chinese authorities calling off events and restricting travel over concerns linked to the outbreak of a deadly virus.

Revelers canceled restaurant reservations and followed travel restrictions, opting to stay away from large crowds. 

The official death toll from the respiratory virus, which broke out six weeks ago, climbed from 26 on Friday to a total of 56 as of Sunday. China also reported 1,975 cases of infection, with 324 people said to be in critical condition.

Read more: Chinese New Year: Entering the Year of the Rat amid the coronavirus crisis

The Lunar New Year marks the start of a new year on the Chinese calendar and is one of China's most significant holidays. The weeklong celebration normally includes reunions with family and friends and trips to locations that attract large crowds, like temples and firework displays.

"Usually we celebrate as a family. Now, because of the virus I'm not even visiting my parents," said 49-year-old Wang Fang of Wuhan, the city at the source of the outbreak. "It'll be great just to be able to make it through the outbreak."

China's health officials said the virus can be passed on to others by respiratory transmission.

The origin of the virus has been traced to a seafood market in Wuhan in the central province of Hubei, where 39 of the deaths occurred.

Travel suspended

Health officials fear the number of cases could rise even further as hundreds of millions of people travel for the weeklong holiday.

Many revelers canceled their travel plans, with Chinese airlines and railways cooperating by offering refunds.

All flights into and out of Wuhan, an inland port city of 11 million people, were canceled, with authorities trying to limit the spread of the disease by preventing people from leaving. Residents were told not to leave the city "without a special reason."

Transportation restrictions were also imposed on Hubei province, home to around 59 million people.

The Chinese military dispatched 450 medical personnel to Wuhan on Friday, many of whom have experience with past outbreaks of SARS and Ebola.

Popular events canceled

While the Lunar New Year is normally an occasion for family reunions and celebrations, fear of the disease has caused many to cancel their plans.

Several attractions in Beijing closed for the week, including the Forbidden City, the capital's most famous site, as well as Lama Temple, where the tradition is to make a new year offering.

The city canceled all temple fairs, a popular tradition that includes food, performances, and games for children.

Sections of the Great Wall outside of the city were also shut down.

Shanghai Disney Resort closed its doors on Saturday for the week. The popular theme park can accommodate up to 100,000 people daily and tickets sold out over last year's Lunar New Year celebration.

US coffeehouse chain Starbucks announced that all cafes in the Hubei province would remain closed throughout the holiday. McDonald's similarly closed all restaurants in five Hubei cities. Authorities have established checkpoints on the main roads leading out of Wuhan.

The virus spreads

Cases have been reported outside of China in Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Nepal, Malaysia, France, the United States, and Australia, which could also dampen the mood among Chinese communities.

The World Health Organization has declared the outbreak an "emergency in China" but has thus far refrained from calling it an international emergency.

cmb,kp/mm (AP, Reuters)

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