China in tricky balance of getting back in business and coronavirus fight

A woman and a man wearing face masks as a preventive measure against the coronavirus walk outside a shopping mall in Beijing, on March 11, 2020.
A woman and a man wearing face masks as a preventive measure against the coronavirus walk outside a shopping mall in Beijing, on March 11, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING - As most of China attempts to return to normalcy after an extensive lockdown to curb the coronavirus, the capital city of Beijing has been carefully trying to strike a balance between having people restart work while also trying to keep out imported infections, on Wednesday (March 11) ordering a mandatory quarantine for all international arrivals.

This comes as the Hubei government announced that some businesses in Wuhan, the outbreak's epicentre, would gradually be allowed to return to work.

On Tuesday (March 10), Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Wuhan, his first to the city since the outbreak, a sign that it could finally be easing after the government's tough control measures.

Businesses involved in providing daily necessities, public utilities and aid with prevention and control of the epidemic will be allowed to resume work or production immediately.

Firms that are key to "global industrial chains" may do so after getting government approval. The central Chinese city has a significant auto industry where companies like Honda, Nissan, General Motors, Renault and the Peugeot Group have plants.

Other companies are expected to start work after March 20.

Transportation within the province - but excluding Wuhan - would be allowed to resume operations, but no date was given. Schools will continue to be closed.

The announcement came a day after Hubei authorities loosened travel restrictions, allowing people from medium and low-risk areas to move within the province if their health code is labelled "green" on a mobile app, indicating they have no contact with virus cases.

Yellow codes are close contacts while red indicate a suspected or confirmed case and must be quarantined.

A city of 11 million, Wuhan has been put under lockdown since Jan 23 in a bid to control an epidemic that has killed 3,158 and infected over 81,000 across the country.

But in recent weeks, cases have been steadily decreasing, with 24 new cases and 22 new deaths reported on Wednesday.

 
 
 

The authorities in other parts of China have also lowered emergency response levels to the epidemic and relaxed travel restrictions.

The city of Qianjiang in Hubei province, about 150km away from Wuhan, bucked the trend: its government on Wednesday rescinded an order allowing travel out of the city, the second time it has done so.

With infections rapidly rising outside China's borders, health authorities are concerned about imported cases, stepping up control measures at airports, including two in Beijing.

Travellers flying in from Italy, Iran, South Korea and Japan, considered high-risk areas, will arrive at a designated area of the terminal, Agence France-Presse reported.

China now has 79 imported infections.

Beijing on Wednesday announced its harshest measures yet, ordering that all foreign arrivals in the city undergo a 14-day quarantine.

While this previously applies to those arriving from hard-hit countries such as South Korea, Iran, Italy and Japan, Mr Zhang Qiang, a city government official, said at a press conference that those landing from any nation would now face isolation.

Those visiting Beijing temporarily on business have to show proof of their trip and will only be allowed to stay in pre-approved hotels. Visitors will be subjected to swab tests and cannot leave their hotels until the results are returned, according to an official statement announcing the new measures.

Meanwhile, in Beijing city, which turned into a virtual ghost town after the city's over 21 million people were ordered to stay home, more cars have been seen on the streets as shops and restaurants reopen.

But with the city trying to return to business while trying to prevent new infections, it has been a tricky balance to strike.

Migrant workers returning after the extended break - many of whom keep the city running as delivery riders, service staff and domestic help - have been ordered to quarantine themselves for two weeks before going back to work.

Ride-hailing drivers and taxis have put up plastic sheets between the front and back seats, wearing gloves and masks while driving.

Subway commuters and shoppers all have to register their details before being allowed through.

Restaurants limit the number of guests sharing a table - between two and three - and diners need to be seated at least 1m apart.

 
 
 

In commercial buildings, elevators have been divided into squares so users keep a sufficient distance apart while companies are told only half their staff, or less, can be in at any time. Those at work need to wear a mask during their time in the office and staff must have their meals separately.

But the onerous rules - that vary from week to week - have been hard on businesses.

"It's very hard for us to plan what we can do. Initially they said we couldn't open, then after that they said yes, but after a few days it changed again to deliveries-only," said the owner of two Cantonese restaurants in Beijing and Shanghai who declined to be named.

"The changing regulations make it very disruptive for the business."