Concern is growing in Beijing that the city might institute a full lockdown as authorities raised its emergency level, axed more outbound transport links and quarantined entire housing compounds in efforts to curb a fresh outbreak.
As of Wednesday morning, China reported 44 new coronavirus cases, 31 of which were found in Beijing. The city has now confirmed 137 cases over the last six days, ending a 56-day streak of zero cases. Beijing is at the second-highest emergency alert in a four-tier system.
China has managed to contain a few ‘second-wave’ outbreaks along its traditionally porous borders – along the north to Russia, and in the south lining southeast Asia. But the latest cluster outbreak in Beijing – the country’s capital and home to ruling Communist Party elites – has alarmed authorities.
The new cases mushrooming in Beijing are again disrupting daily life, just over a week after containment measures were finally eased. Those curbs have since come back in full force, with new temperature screening checkpoints going up and sheets of corrugated metal erected to seal off neighbourhoods deemed high-risk.
“Of course I’m worried,” said Mr Zhao, 50, a delivery man. “I hope the second wave can pass as soon as possible. That would be the best for everyone.”
City roads remain open and businesses are allowed to continue operations, though officials have urged those who can do so to work from home. Authorities have also stepped up measures to control travel to and from Beijing.
About 70 per cent of flights in Beijing have been cancelled. State railway companies are granting full refunds in hopes of discouraging people from traveling, even though routes have not been officially halted.
Public transport within the city is enforcing social distancing measure, cutting capacity by as much as half on subways and buses to allow passengers more space. Some stations are even being disinfected hourly. Long-distance buses and taxis were already banned from travelling outside of city limits earlier this week.
As fear of contagion grows, nearly all Chinese provinces are now requiring travellers from Beijing to quarantine for as many as 21 days upon arrival.
While city restaurants so far have largely been allowed to stay open, many have reinstated requirements for diners to sit diagonally from each other.
Banks are also supplying antimicrobial gel and tissues at ATMs so that visitors can protect and disinfect their hands at the machines. Schools have been shuttered with final exams for lower grades cancelled; already postponed high school and university exams still remain on the schedule for later in the summer.
Gyms, swimming pools and sporting events have also been closed again.
The Beijing outbreak has been traced to Xinfadi wholesale food market, which supplies the majority of the groceries sold in Beijing.
Initial inquiries to locate the cause of the outbreak centred on imported salmon from Norway. However, Chinese and Norwegian authorities have concluded that Norwegian salmon was likely not the source of the novel coronavirus that was found on cutting boards.
The neighbourhood where the market is located in southern Beijing has been deemed high-risk with at least another 27 neighbourhoods designated as medium-risk.
Stores are now being supplied directly via government reserves of produce or receiving shipments directly from suppliers, bypassing wholesale markets in Beijing, which have been closed for disinfection, and will remain shuttered until further notice.
Some vendors have tried to take advantage of food shortage concerns by raising prices. State media reported that one vegetable seller hawking potatoes at five times the market cost was fined 100,000 yuan (£11,230).
“It is pretty scary as there’s suddenly more than a hundred cases,” said Ms Cao, 33, who works for a telecoms firm. “My colleagues are all freaked out as they have kids. But I feel ok as I live alone – if I get infected, I’ll go to a hospital for treatment. I believe the country will handle it well, so I’m not too panicked.”
Additional reporting by Yiyin Zhong