Beijing in the time of coronavirus: No traffic, empty parks and fear

A nearly deserted road outside Beijing Capital International Airport, which is usually choked with traffic. PHOTO: NYTIMES
Passengers riding a near-empty subway train on Monday. PHOTO: NYTIMES
A guard checking the temperature of a woman entering a mall. PHOTO: NYTIMES

BEIJING (NYTIMES) - The Apple stores were among the busiest places still open in Beijing after the coronavirus outbreak, though employees forbade customers to try the watches or AirPods.

Some people ventured in out of necessity, as ever. "My laptop is broken," one woman said.

For others they provided a rare communal gathering space, a break from the isolation, anxiety and fear that have settled on the city of 23 million ever since the epidemic began to emanate from central China.

Now the stores have closed, along with theatres, museums, cinemas, temples, barbers, hair salons, karaoke bars, and most other shops and restaurants. The Forbidden City has shut down "until further notice," as has a popular section of the Great Wall in the breezy, wintry hills to the northeast, far from urban congestion.

Beijing is not under a strict, government-ordered lockdown, like that in Wuhan and other cities at the centre of the epidemic. It has, however, imposed restrictions on practically every aspect of life since declaring "the highest level of public health emergency" on Jan 24.

This shutdown in all but name is occurring in city after city across China, disrupting life and creating dystopian vistas of a suddenly depopulated country.

Flyers from the Beijing government have been posted on shop windows and apartment buildings, urging everyone to take necessary precautions. Residents were encouraged to avoid "crowded places or public gatherings" - though most of those, including festivals celebrating the Lunar New Year, were cancelled anyway.

Many stores and shopping centres have set up temperature checks for anyone entering. Some, including the Yves Saint Laurent in the upscale Sanlitun shopping district, have posted signs refusing entry to anyone not wearing a mask.

Suspicion has become its own contagion. "Stay there," warned one man playing badminton with his daughter in Chaoyang Park, both wearing masks. "Don't get close to us."

Like most major cities, Beijing is a place of migrants seeking a better way of life, but now anyone from outside the capital has encountered open hostility - particularly those from Hubei province, the centre of the outbreak.

Some neighbourhoods took it upon themselves to set up checkpoints and guard posts, prepared to turn away those who were returning from the infected zones after the Lunar New Year holidays.

One was Xifuheyuan, an apartment complex in eastern Beijing. Signs were posted announcing that anyone coming from Hubei would be sent to a hotel for 14 days of quarantine. It was not clear exactly how the complex's guards intended to enforce the edict, but one who was carrying out checks promised that authorities would foot the bill.

"The party is warmhearted," the guard said, declining to give his name.

Guards at an apartment complex in the Dongzhimen neighborhood check the temperatures of people entering. PHOTO: NYTIMES

As word of checkpoints spread, Beijing's deputy secretary-general, Chen Bei, hastened to announce on Feb 1 that authorities would not tolerate viral vigilantism.

At the same time, the city's official announcements have encouraged anyone who has recently visited Hubei or been in contact with anyone who had to "inform your community authority".

The Centre for Disease Control even sent text messages to residents travelling to the infected region - apparently using information from cellular service providers - to abide by the lockdown in Wuhan and not return to Beijing. "We've been worrying about you all this time!" the text read.

Beijing residents originally from Hubei - everyone's hometown is written on their national identification card - have in turn faced intrusive questioning about their travels or any visits from relatives, all in the name of public health.

The city, at last count, had 212 coronavirus cases and one death, though those figures might rise. A city official announced on Monday that five medical workers at Fuxing Hospital had been infected.

Empty stalls in Qianmen area. PHOTO: NYTIMES

By all appearances, most Beijing residents have accepted the official advice and simply stayed home.

The effect has been to slow the sprawling capital - the second-largest city in China after Shanghai and the beating heart of the Communist Party state - to an eerie, uncharacteristic crawl. Buses and subway trains are running, but they are nearly empty of passengers. Traffic, which is usually chronically bad, has disappeared.

Even China's celebrated delivery drivers - the frenetic, ice-in-their-veins food and package scooter riders who have accelerated the country's e-commerce boom - have seen work plummet. Some delivery companies have offered "no touch" service for food deliveries, while others have sent drivers with certificates recording their temperatures.

One driver, Liu Chaohui, complained that business had fallen 90 per cent since the outbreak started, defying conventional wisdom that people stuck at home would be ordering in.

"I'm going to quit after this month if it continues to be like this," he said.

Train attendants wearing protective masks on their way to Beijing Railway Station. PHOTO: NYTIMES

In the Temple of Earth, a park north of Tiananmen Square, the public chorus that gathers to sing every morning has stopped coming. So have the regular groups of people juggling shuttlecocks with their feet, and the hardy retirees who regularly work out on the exercise equipment in the park's northeast corner.

Working out in the near-deserted Ritan Park. PHOTO: NYTIMES

The only sound in the park on a recent day was a loudspeaker announcement repeating the advice posted on flyers about avoiding crowded places, refraining from spitting and washing hands frequently. Anyone entering any park must, by government edict, wear a mask and have their temperature checked.

Not far from the Temple of Earth, the Lama Temple, the city's most important Buddhist site, remains closed in what would normally have been its busiest season.

Wang Haixia, a 62-year-old retiree, stood watch on Monday on a nearby street. She was one of hundreds of volunteers, sporting red arm bands to convey authority, who have answered a call from the Communist Party to do their part in this time of challenge.

"We're just overlooking the neighbourhood," she explained, adding that she and her colleagues would call local authorities the moment it seemed necessary to do so.

No one knows when things will get back to normal.

"Of course, all of us want this to end as early as possible," Wang said. "Nobody wants to live their life like this."

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