Airlines canceled hundreds of flights. Schools called off classes, forcing students to exchange abrupt farewells. Officials sealed off neighborhoods, and residents stuck inside complained about limited food deliveries. Medical workers tested tens of thousands of residents.
After a fresh outbreak of coronavirus infections, the city of Beijing has begun imposing a milder reprise of the controls that China enforced across the country earlier in the year to stifle the first wave of infections. The outbreak is a reminder to residents that even in China — with its arsenal of high-tech surveillance tools and other authoritarian powers — the virus that causes Covid-19 can leap back into life, triggering new and disruptive restrictions.
The Chinese Communist Party has reacted to the latest outbreak with a tough approach. Much is at stake for the party’s credibility: In recent weeks, officials had been trumpeting their success in stifling the virus. Now it is back in this city of over 21 million.
Party officials in charge of Beijing, including the city’s party secretary, Cai Qi, have sounded chagrined about the flare-up of cases that emerged at the large Xinfadi food market in the city’s south.
“The lessons run very deep, the situation for epidemic control is very grim, and this has sounded a warning to us,” said an official summary of a city leaders’ meeting carried by The Beijing Daily on Wednesday.
So far the scale of infections in Beijing is far from reaching the levels that gripped Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the virus first emerged late last year. Nor are the restrictions in response as severe. The Beijing government reported on Wednesday that the number of coronavirus cases had risen to 137, after an additional 31 cases were reported that day.
Most Beijing streets flowed with traffic on Wednesday, though less than usual, and the public mood appeared resigned rather than panicked. Restaurants still opened for business, though the government has ordered them to disinfect and check employees.
But hundreds of flights to and from Beijing, roughly 60 percent of departures, were canceled. Fear both of infections and of quarantines prompted many passengers to stay put.
Zhao Gang, a Chinese businessman and aviation writer, said the cancellations illustrated how long-laid plans — like studying abroad — could be thrown into doubt by sudden restrictions triggered by a resurgence of the coronavirus.
“Maybe you’re all set to go, but before departure some sudden incident indefinitely delays the flight. What can you do?” he said in a video comment online. “These flip-flopping hassles.”
At the Beijing South Railway Station, the cavernous departure hall was mostly empty Wednesday afternoon as the authorities ordered that only people who tested negative for the coronavirus could leave the city. Some of the station’s fast-food restaurants and other eateries were closed.
Yet the digital departure screens showing the next 66 bullet trains indicated that not one had been canceled. Some travelers waiting in the hall were determined to leave before any further restrictions came into force.
“I’m worried that the city might be sealed off,” said Shi Ming, a 22-year-old student who had bought a train ticket to return to his hometown in Shandong Province, eastern China. “Last night was very tense, so I rushed to snap up a ticket.”
The flurry of new controls in Beijing came just less than two weeks after the city government had lowered its emergency footing, seemingly confident that life could return to normal.
But Gao Fu, the director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, suggested that the virus might have been in circulation for a month among vendors and workers at the Xinfadi market before cases were first reported in recent days.
In a meeting of officials in Shanghai on Tuesday, Dr. Gao explained that many of the latest cases were asymptomatic or mild infections, allowing the virus to spread undetected in the environment, according to Caixin, a Chinese magazine.
Across Beijing, most residents seemed reconciled to the prospect of weeks under newly tightened restrictions, after the government upgraded the health emergency to the second-highest level on Tuesday. State-run media outlets have repeatedly contrasted China’s aggressive campaign against the virus with the lapses of the United States, Britain and other Western countries where infections have surged.
The heaviest controls in the Chinese capital have fallen on neighborhoods around the vast Xinfadi market and two other smaller ones where health investigators believe the coronavirus spread among vendors and workers, and then onto others. Nearly all the cases have been traced back to people from the market, or people who had close contact with them, and the chain of infections has spilled into other parts of China.
Beijing has already thrown daunting resources into stifling the outbreak. In recent days, city authorities have carried out nucleic acid tests for the virus among 356,000 people linked to the closed markets or living near them, city officials told a news conference on Wednesday. Still, Pang Xinghuo, a deputy director of the Beijing Center for Disease Control, warned that the number of infections spreading from the Xinfadi market could still grow, given the size of the market and the reach of its traders across the city.
“The risks of the outbreak spreading are large and control is quite difficult,” she said.
While most neighborhoods in Beijing have reinstated temperature checks and restrictions on visitors, nearly 30 neighborhoods near the markets have gone into strict lockdown, banning residents from going outside, even for groceries. The government imposed similar controls across Wuhan to stifle the epidemic there earlier this year, and in both cities the controls ignited frustration.
“The neighborhood has imposed fully sealed-off management and nobody knows what to do,” said one message on Weibo, a Chinese social media service, which said residents in one locked-down block in Beijing had a hard time buying food.
“Adults can get by, but what about children and old people?” said the comment, which was widely shared. “Couriers can’t get close, and friends and relatives outside can’t send in assistance either.”
The city government’s order to cancel classes has also caused headaches for students preparing for the annual university entrance exams, which are a searingly stressful experience even in normal times. To the ire of some parents, the government said it would not postpone the main examinations, which had been scheduled for early July.
The government has also warned all residents to wear protective masks when outside, even in the hot, muggy weather that covers Beijing at this time of year.
“It’s very uncomfortable and a hassle,” said Wang Chen, a professional dancer in his twenties wearing a bright red mask. “But you have to hang on to your life.”
Amber Wang contributed research.