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Beijing grinds to a near halt as China’s capital city battles Covid with more lockdowns

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Covid restrictions have tightened in Beijing while infections keep soaring, prompting lockdowns of communities.
Jade Gao | Afp | Getty Images

BEIJING — China’s capital city is grinding to a near standstill as Covid controls spread.

More and more apartment compounds in Beijing on Friday forbade residents from leaving for at least a few days. That’s on top of a growing number of bans on business activity, which have forced gyms to close and restaurants to halt in-store dining.

“This morning most of our 30+ staff reported their communities went into a 7-day lockdown,” James Zimmerman, partner in the Beijing office of Perkins Coie, said on Twitter Friday. He said a day earlier, the firm had to tell all its employees to work from home.

It was not clear how many people were affected at a city level, and to what degree stay-in-place measures were being enforced. Beijing has a population of roughly 22 million.

“You constantly hear of someone going into lockdown and you have this constant feeling that you’re going to be next,” Joerg Wuttke, president of the EU Chamber of Commerce in China, said Friday. He estimated that about 40% of people in his office area were locked down.

Beijing city government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Municipal authorities have not announced a city-wide lockdown, and warned it’s in a “critical” period for controlling the virus.

Local infections have surged despite gradual tightening of Covid measures over the last two weeks. Beijing city reported more than 1,800 Covid infections for Thursday, bringing the total for the month to well over 10,000.

Other parts of mainland China have reported similar surges in infections — to a nationwide new daily high of more than 32,000 for Thursday.

The central government this month sent an encouraging signal to investors about future reopening by trimming quarantine times, among other changes. But the zero-Covid policy itself didn’t change.

“Initially when the [new measures] came out, we did feel somewhat positive. But now, we’re finding that interpretation varies widely,” said Jennifer Birdsong, Chengdu-based member of the EU Chamber’s Southwest China Chapter Board. “There is a great deal of variation in what may be interpreted as necessary lockdown.”

“Right now, we are also in a situation where bars, restaurants and gyms, all of them [were] closed last night,” she said, adding that business owners are frustrated by the lack of notice.

She said the restrictions mean some workers have had to sleep at factories, only to find they aren’t able to get food delivered.

Plunge in road traffic

Data show that people in Covid-hit areas are moving around less, willingly or unwillingly.

Baidu traffic data showed Beijing has fallen from being the most congested city in all of China to 74th place.

Subway ridership in the southwestern municipality of Chongqing plunged by nearly 99% from a year ago, according to a Goldman Sachs report Friday.

That in the southern city of Guangzhou fell by about 65% from last year, the report said.

Guangzhou, the capital of the export-heavy province of Guangdong, has been hardest hit by this month’s Covid wave. Some frustrated residents have even broken through lockdown barriers, local officials said Thursday, according to state media.

Only parts of the city have locked down. But businesses are worried and are working overtime to make sure they can fulfill their orders without disruption, said Klaus Zenkel, vice president at the EU Chamber of Commerce in China and chairman of its South China chapter.

He said one company in the food industry had to lock down for about a week, and lost hundreds of tons of an unspecified material.

EU Chamber members in Shanghai are moving meetings online and taking other preventative measures, while in the northern city of Shenyang, restaurants and gyms have had to close again, local business representatives said.

Overall, the EU Chamber noted Friday a need for greater emphasis on vaccinating the local population. China lags the U.S. and Singapore when it comes to vaccination rates for seniors.

Chinese authorities have focused in recent months on using frequent virus testing and more targeted measures in an attempt to control Covid outbreaks while allowing some business activity.

“We will keep pushing papers … to the [Chinese] administration, because I think they are soul-searching how to deal with this situation,” Wuttke said. “China has a zero-tolerance policy and finds it difficult to get itself out of this corner.”

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