Virus-ravaged Wuhan cautiously revives amid thicket of controls
Wuhan, China — Released from their apartments after a 2 1/2-month quarantine, residents of the city where the coronavirus pandemic began are cautiously returning to shopping and strolling in the streets. But they say they still go out little and keep their children home while waiting for schools to reopen.
Wuhan’s 11 million people still face a thicket of controls after curbs that kept most of them from leaving the sprawling city ended this week. Office buildings require visitors to show a smartphone app that tracks their health. A salesman said he has to report details of trips across the city to authorities.
Wuhan’s gradual steps toward reviving business and daily life while trying to prevent a resurgence of the virus foreshadow the struggle that other cities in Asia and the West face once they ease anti-disease controls that have shut down global travel and devastated trade.
On a downtown Wuhan pedestrian mall, construction workers wearing surgical-style masks went back to work renovating a sporting goods store. A man and woman danced on the sidewalk while a friend took video of them with a mobile phone.
Guards at office buildings checked visitors for fever. Pedestrians and customers in shops wore masks and kept their distance from each other.
“I still feel safer not going out too often. I still order food and vegetables delivered to our home,” said a salesman for a beef processing facility who would give only his surname, Peng. “I have a 2-year-old boy and he loves to get out after being held at home so long, but I still worry about his safety and won’t let him play with other kids outside.”
Nursing home worker Tu Min said the facility is still closed.
“After staying at home for over two months, I would like to take a walk at evening as exercise, because we really have nothing to do at home,” Tu said.
Most access to Wuhan was suspended Jan. 23 as China stepped up efforts to fight the virus that emerged in December.
Restaurants, subways and other public facilities shut down in a pattern that would spread to other Asian countries and Europe as infections rose. Families were ordered to stay home, leaving streets empty and silent. Controls spread to other cities, eventually affecting 800 million people.
Wuhan accounted for 2,575 of the deaths reported by the National Health Commission as of Friday, roughly two-thirds of China’s total of 3,336. It had 50,008 of the mainland’s 81,907 confirmed cases.
The ruling Communist Party started easing controls in early March to try to revive the world’s second-largest economy after declaring victory over the virus as daily numbers of newly reported cases declined.
Auto factories and other businesses deemed essential for the national economy or that produced daily necessities reopened. Some businesses including real estate agencies are still closed.
The director of a Wuhan hospital that treated coronavirus patients warned against assuming the virus is gone and said specialized facilities to treat it must be maintained.
“The virus will survive with human beings in the future, so we have to think about how to deploy the next step,” said Dr. Zhang Dingyu of Jinyintan Hospital in an interview. “We used to focus on flu, AIDS and hand-foot-mouth disease, but now we need to have a ward or an area to deal with this disease (COVID-19).”
People in Wuhan should consider wearing masks for another three months, said Dr. Zhang Junjian, the former head of one of three temporary coronavirus hospitals set up in the city. He said that wasn’t an official decision.
Schools that have been teaching over the internet have yet to announce when they might reopen. School officials have said they were disinfecting buildings and designing a lighter workload so students can ease back into classroom work.
An employee of an irrigation company who would give only her surname, Xu, said her 10-year-old had gotten used to having class online. She said she felt more comfortable with that arrangement for now.
“We still avoid leaving home except to go to work,” Xu said. “We still order food online even though we are now allowed to go to the supermarket, and try to stay in the residence compound as much as possible.”
Some apartment complexes still bar outsiders. Similar curbs are in place in the capital, Beijing, and other cities.
That keeps Zhang Juan’s customers away. Zhang runs a shop that sells liquor and cigarettes in a residential compound where she said only one member of each household is allowed out each day.
“I keep disinfecting the shop, but what is the point?” said Zhang, 35. “Sometimes the whole day’s sales are no more than 10 yuan ($1.40).”
The government has promised tax breaks, low-cost loans and other aid for entrepreneurs to get them back on their feet. It isn’t clear, however, how many might fold under the pressure of paying rent, wages and other expenses for two months with no revenue and facing more weeks with little business.
“The epidemic has hit me so hard and I can’t even make payments on my bank loans and credit cards,” Zhang said.
The shutdown added to business for online grocers and other e-commerce companies, propelling the industry’s already explosive growth.
Potential homebuyers now can see about 95% of Wuhan’s 1,500 new residential projects online, according to Hu Haibo, a real estate salesman.
“We used to take customers to show houses or apartments they wanted to buy or rent, but now we can only show them online,” Hu said. “Not many customers like to make a purchase without seeing properties in person.”
McDonald reported from Beijing.