Beijing tourist sites empty amid coronavirus-hit public holiday

People queueing near the entrance of the Forbidden City in Beijing to get a Covid-19 swab test on May 1, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (AFP) - Major Beijing tourist venues were virtually deserted on Sunday (May 1) and restaurant traffic ground to a standstill, as a typically bustling public holiday was overshadowed by a Covid-19 outbreak that has shunted millions under lockdown nationwide.

China's staunch zero-Covid-19 policy has kept the virus at bay for more than two years, but it is currently facing its worst outbreak since the start of the pandemic, thanks to an Omicron-fuelled wave.

Millions across the country - particularly in economic engine Shanghai - have been forced to stay at home for weeks, as the lockdowns have dampened economic growth and investor sentiment in the world's second-largest economy.

Beijing so far has reported over 300 cases under the current wave, and the authorities on Saturday banned citywide dining services starting on Sunday to May 4 - an attempt to curb infections during a holiday that is typically an annual peak consumption period.

"It will have a definite impact on sales," a restaurant employee surnamed An told AFP, as she scanned for customers around Beijing's Dongcheng district - home to historic attractions like the Forbidden City.

Eateries nearby were shuttered, with some allowing customers to order takeout only if they have a negative Covid-19 test.

This restriction is the latest measure ordered by the Beijing authorities, who say all visitors to public spaces must have a negative test result within the past 48 hours.

"Of course, we will abide by the country's rules," An said. But "we make less profit through delivery and our sales volume is lower", she added.

The Temple of Heaven - one of China's biggest historical attractions - is usually heaving with tens of thousands of visitors a day elbowing each other. But on Sunday, masked families could snap selfies without any interruptions along the imperial complex.

Even the downtown shopping street Wangfujing - a commerce heaven of food stalls and fashionable outlets - was deserted.

At a restaurant not far from the unusually quiet Forbidden City palace complex, stacks of marinated chicken feet, flatbreads and cold cuts in takeaway containers languished on an outdoor table as staff chatted idly inside.

"Obviously it's bad in terms of our own self-interest, but it's necessary overall for the good of the country," said a young waiter who did not give his name.

"We would normally sell 10,000 yuan (S$2,090) worth of food in a day, but now it's only 1,000 to 2,000 yuan," he added.

Instead of entering the Forbidden City, lines of people waited outside the palace complex to get a swab test - a new normal for Beijing residents.

People queueing to get a Covid-19 swab test near the entrance of the Forbidden City on May 1, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

Universal Studios shuttered

About 30km east of the palace on the city's outskirts, Universal Studios - Beijing's largest Western theme park boasting Jurassic World and Harry Potter-themed zones - announced its indefinite closure on Sunday.

It was launched last September and has seen more than two million visitors in five months.

The Labour Day holiday was supposed to be a massive commercial coup for the park - which earlier this week had initially required a negative Covid-19 test within 24 hours of visiting.

Beijing's Universal Studios pictured on April 29, 2022. The theme park has announced its indefinite closure. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

The capital reported 59 new infections on Sunday, as officials announced the reopening of a Covid-19 quarantine hospital that has not been mobilised since the pandemic's first wave in 2020.

All indoor fitness activities, such as public gyms and pools, were suspended starting from Sunday until May 4, while the authorities say about 4,000 makeshift hospital beds have been prepared and larger quarantine centres were being constructed.

"There still exists a small number of hidden infected (patients) found through community screening," Beijing health official Pang Xinghuo said at a Sunday briefing.

"The epidemic is overall at a high plateau period."

Meanwhile, in Shanghai, officials declared on Sunday that "community transmission risk has been effectively curbed" and that daily infections are trending downwards.

The financial hub of 25 million has been locked down for almost a month, with residents complaining of food shortages and the lack of timely medical care.

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