Outbreak puts damper on CNY cheer as Chinese cancel trips, reunion meals

A man rides on his scooter in front of a closed ticket office for internet bookings after the temple fair for the Chinese Lunar New Year in Ditan Park was canceled in Beijing, China on Jan 24, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING • Cancelled holidays, takeaway dinners and Chinese New Year greetings through video calls.

The Wuhan coronavirus, now believed to have mutated to spread between humans, has put a damper on the festivities.

Most mass gatherings have been cancelled, including temple fairs, a new year staple.

Restaurateurs have also said dinner bookings on Chinese New Year's Eve, generally one of their biggest nights of the year, have slid by nearly one-third, not counting those who might not show up for their reservations.

While restrictions on public gatherings have been placed in Wuhan and Beijing, many across the country are not leaving anything to chance.

Librarian Zhang Yongtong had been planning a trip to Yunnan with her family and friends for months.

The group of about 10 were going to fly to Lijiang and travel around the province for a week before returning to Beijing through Shangri-La, the mountaintop town sometimes referred to as paradise.

But on Thursday, they decided to call off their plans.

"Initially I thought it wasn't that bad since there haven't been any infections in Yunnan," Madam Zhang told The Straits Times.

Then, as the severity of the cases escalated and the number of deaths started piling up, she became concerned.

"There's no such thing as taking too many precautions. I'm trying to reduce the chances of exposure (to the virus)," she said.

As a result of the government's travel restrictions, hotels and airlines have allowed free cancellations and full refunds.

In the food and beverage industry, outlets are going to great lengths to reassure customers.

Many have put up notices on their official social media accounts telling customers that their staff have their health monitored and have been told to practise good hygiene, and that the eateries are disinfected every hour.

Beijing fine-dining restaurant TRB has even gone one step further to say all wait staff will be wearing masks during the meal service, in a post with pictures of its staff wearing surgical masks and holding up red packets.

"In the bitter winter of torture by the virus, TRB will continue to bring you warmth," the post said.

But operators, especially those serving Chinese food, said at least 30 per cent of their reunion dinner bookings have been cancelled.

A restaurant owner, who declined to be named and runs two Cantonese restaurants, in Beijing and in Shanghai, said: "No matter what you say, people are still worried so it's understandable that they want to avoid crowded places."

He added that nearly a dozen customers with reservations had asked for their food to be taken away instead so they can enjoy it in the safety of their own home.

Housewife Amanda Yu said her extended family cancelled their annual Chinese New Year meal at a restaurant this year.

"Reducing movement and interaction between others is something all of us are responsible for, especially during this period, so we all do what we can," said Madam Yu, who is based in Shanghai.

"We'll still celebrate the new year, just that we'll have to do it over a video (call) this time!"

Meanwhile, in Wuhan, ground zero of the virus outbreak, Singaporean Sathish Narayanaswamy, 25, said it almost seems like a normal Chinese New Year, with shops and restaurants closed.

The medical student at Wuhan University said he was meant to be doing his internship at hospitals in the city, but that has been put on hold since the outbreak.

For now, he has been staying in and watching movies with other international students.

"If the lockdown continues and the situation is at another level, I'll leave because staying here will only make it more dangerous for myself," he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 25, 2020, with the headline Outbreak puts damper on CNY cheer as Chinese cancel trips, reunion meals. Subscribe