Beijing reopens cautiously after wave of Covid-19

BEIJING — China’s capital took tentative steps towards reopening on Monday as much of Beijing lifted restrictions on restaurant dining and many workers returned to their offices. But new outbreaks of Covid-19 clusters across the country and new lockdowns in parts of Shanghai continued to pose major risks to China’s economy.

For more than a month, health authorities in Beijing have imposed increasingly strict measures on the city’s businesses and residents’ personal travel in a bid to stamp out the worst Covid-19 outbreak in the Chinese capital since. the early days of the pandemic. City officials say those efforts are working as new daily infections have fallen to a dozen cases or less in recent days, after weeks of mass testing of much of the city’s more than 20 million residents. .

By allowing restaurants, gyms and other businesses to reopen, authorities in Beijing are signaling that they believe they have successfully controlled the latest outbreak without having to resort to the kinds of harsh lockdown measures recently experienced in Shanghai and elsewhere.

On Monday morning, Beijing’s Second Ring Road, a major ring road encircling the Old City, was clogged with bumper-to-bumper traffic. Commuters again filled the subway cars on their way to work. Yang Fan, a 30-year-old social media producer, said he struggled to find a seat on the train for the first time in a month.

Yang said he was pleased with the way government officials controlled the latest outbreak in Beijing, and in particular that it managed to avoid a widespread lockdown.

Commuters fill subway cars as Beijing eases its Covid-19 measures.


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Photo/Zuma Press

“It was strict at first,” he said. “But the result is good.” Mr. Yang said he plans to go out to dinner with friends on Monday night, but worries about getting a table will prove difficult.

Beijing restaurants need all the help they can get from Mr. Yang and others like him.

Zhang Shengtao, operations manager at Huda Restaurant, a well-known local institution that serves crayfish and other delicacies around the clock, said the past month of restrictions was the restaurant’s most difficult time in the past. of his nearly 12 years working there. Employees were forced to take 30% pay cuts as the restaurant survived on delivery orders and a pop-up stand offering takeout, Zhang said.

When Huda employees learned Sunday that restaurant dining would resume the next day, they immediately got to work preparing the restaurant for service. Diners began lining up at 9:30 p.m. Sunday evening. At midnight when the restaurant opened, more than 350 people lined up, stretching along the block, Zhang said.

“We’ve been waiting for this moment for so long,” Zhang said, adding that the restaurant was working to bring wages back to their original level now that restrictions have been eased.

A medical worker administered a Covid-19 test in Beijing on Monday.


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TINGSHU WANG/REUTERS

Stopping Covid-19 outbreaks before they spread has become one of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s most important initiatives, an approach that has consumed vast state resources. Showcasing the strategy’s success is particularly important as Mr Xi attempts to break with recent precedent and secure a third term at a closely watched Communist Party meeting later this year.

For much of 2020 and 2021, according to Chinese leaders, their “zero Covid” strategy has served the country well. By largely closing its borders and aggressively eliminating cases, China has prevented widespread illness and death in the United States and elsewhere.

However, the highly contagious Omicron variant of the coronavirus has challenged this approach – nowhere more visibly than in Shanghai. Over the past two months, nearly all of Shanghai’s 25 million people have been locked in their homes due to government mandates that have crippled China’s most economically important city.

When rumors of an impending Shanghai-style lockdown began circulating in Beijing last month, it sparked panicky food shopping as locals feared there would be food shortages.

Shanghai has started to reopen more in recent days, though many residents still fear the city will confine them to their homes again soon. Over the weekend, Jing’an District sealed off 56 residential areas after discovering five new clusters of cases.

City officials reported on Sunday that three new cases had been discovered outside of quarantine facilities, that is, among the general population, a sign of how the transmissibility of Omicron continues to be a problem there. -down.

Meanwhile, the city of Dandong in the northeast of the country, on the border between China and North Korea, has seen dozens of cases emerge in recent weeks, leading authorities to close areas across the city. North Korea battled its first major Covid-19 outbreak and sought help from China, its closest friend.

For China, the economic scars of “zero Covid” could worsen in the coming months, economists say. In a sign of growing apprehension about the economy among China’s elites, Premier Li Keqiang convened an unusual video conference of tens of thousands of officials across China late last month to urge them to work harder to save the Chinese economy. Many economists believe that China will not be able to meet its official growth target of 5.5% this year.

Shanghai residents took selfies outside and toasted champagne as the city emerged from a Covid-19 lockdown that lasted more than two months. But there are economic challenges ahead as China shows no sign of easing its zero covid strategy. Photo: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg News

Even though restrictions have tightened in Beijing in recent weeks, some local residents said they don’t believe the government will impose a full lockdown like in Shanghai. Many of the restrictions that have been implemented also appear to have been applied unevenly.

For example, the Liangma River in Beijing’s embassy district has in recent weeks become a popular gathering place for Chinese, Western and other well-heeled diplomats. To discourage such gatherings, authorities initially lined the river with fences and signs prohibiting such gatherings. Yet many have circumvented the restrictions or simply ignored them.

During the day, retirees have taken to setting up card tables to picnic with their friends along the river. On a recent weekend night, town clubs parked Lamborghinis and other sports cars on a nearby road, with some vendors selling whiskey and Jack Daniel’s beers from the trunks of their vehicles.

Write to Brian Spegele at brian.spegele@wsj.com

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