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Flights canceled, communities fenced off as coronavirus' return plunges Beijing into "soft lockdown"

Beijing in lockdown amid new COVID-19 wave

Beijing — The new outbreak of coronavirus in the Chinese capital prompted authorities to raise their official emergency response back to Level II on Tuesday night, as they race to stem what one called an "extremely severe" situation. The adjustment to Beijing's response level came just 10 days after it was downgraded to Level III.

Beijing has bolstered measures to stop the virus spreading as the cluster of new infections, centered on the Xinfadi wholesale food market, grew by another 31 cases over the course of Tuesday. China's government has now officially tallied 137 cases in the capital city since the first patient in this new wave of infections was diagnosed last week.

Now flights are being canceled, schools have been told to shut back down, and entire communities near the market, or with known COVID-19 cases, have been closed off and their residents barred from leaving. So far 29 neighborhoods have been completely fenced off.

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People who had their car number plates recorded in the area of the Xinfadi market, where a new COVID-19 coronavirus cluster emerged, wait to be tested for the coronavirus in Beijing, June 17, 2020. GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty

Across much of the capital, residents have found themselves under what many are calling a "soft lockdown."

More than 1,200 inbound and outbound flights from Beijing's two airports were canceled on Wednesday, accounting for almost 70% of scheduled trips, according to aviation tracking website Variflight. The national railway operator is allowing passengers to and from Beijing to refund their tickets without fees. All outbound taxi and car-hailing services and most long-distance bus routes from Beijing were canceled.

City officials have limited public places such as libraries, museums, art galleries, and parks to 30% capacity.

The rest of Beijing's the residents have been told to avoid "non-essential" travel outside city. If it is deemed "absolutely necessary" to travel, residents have to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test result from within the past seven days, but appointments for testing aren't to be had quickly or easily right now, and other parts of China aren't eagerly welcoming arrivals from Beijing.

The return of strict control measures in the capital, even if only in some parts, has sparked panic and anxiety among some Beijingers. Social media is flooded with residents' concerns, including some complaining that the government is trying to soften the perception of the new lockdown by simply not using the word in news conferences, even as it brings back the restrictions.

There are also complaints about the mandatory temperature checks at checkpoints that have popped back up around the city, and the halt to doorstep deliveries as building entry restrictions have been brought back in the closed-off residential communities.

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A man comes to collect items he ordered online in a residential area in Xicheng district, which was under lockdown after a new COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak near the Xinfadi food market in Beijing, June 17, 2020. NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty

But many are also calling for calm, and for the majority who live in parts of the capital still unaffected by the new outbreak, life is going on more or less as usual, or at least as usual as it has been since much broader restrictions were lifted at the end of April. Most people are still able to go to work and socialize, albeit under strict social distancing guidelines.

Beijing has tested 356,000 people for COVID-19 since Saturday, and workers intended to test at least 355,000 more people with links to the Xinfadi market quickly, city official Zhang Qiang said at Wednesday's daily press briefing. He said six groups of people would be tested in the coming days, including those with links to Xinfadi or other food markets, public sector employees, medical workers, and teachers and students who have returned to school.

Pang Xinghuo, deputy director of the municipal center for disease prevention and control said it was possible "the number of COVID-19 cases in the city will stay at current levels for some time," indicating an expected sustained trend.

While the origin of this new outbreak was still unclear on Wednesday, China has halted European salmon imports after the coronavirus was detected on a chopping board used for imported salmon in the Xinfadi market. Chinese experts have said genetic tracing suggests the virus strain now spreading in Beijing may have come from Europe.

Gao Fu, director of the Chinese Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the outbreak probably really began spreading quietly a month before it was detected, in May.

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"It's possible that there were already a lot of asymptomatic or mild patients during that month, and that's why the environment has this high amount of virus. This is our estimation and needs to be further verified," Gao told a seminar with public health officials in Shanghai on Tuesday, according to local media reports.

While the outbreak is causing concern, China's leading COVID-19 expert Dr. Zhang Wenhong said Wednesday that the quick reaction should make it controllable.

"Beijing's determined," he said in a speech delivered online for Tsinghua University. "I can understand Beijing's strict measures — the stricter they are, the better it is for the rest of the country."

Noting that such a dramatic reintroduction of strict control measures might not be feasible in Western countries, Zhang said China would, "just have to wait and see; Beijing could be a very good reference template for China's epidemic prevention and control," as other cities — and countries — brace for possible resurgences of the virus.

Meanwhile, Tianjin city, next to Beijing, reported one locally transmitted coronavirus case on Wednesday. The patient has told authorities they had no travel history in the past 14 days and no contacts with known or suspected coronavirus patients. The man works at a local hotel as dish washer, and occasionally handles frozen seafood.

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