China faces bumpy road to normal as infections rise

BEIJING (AP) — After three years of quarantines that pushed them to the brink of closure, restaurant owner Li Meng and his wife are hoping business will rebound after China rolls back tough virus checks.

As sales slowly pick up, they face a new challenge: diners are wary of the wave of infections in the country. By 8 p.m. Wednesday night, only three of their 20 tables were filled.

China is on a bumpy road to normal life as people return to schools, malls and restaurants after some of the world’s toughest restrictions came to an abrupt end, even as hospitals are overwhelmed with febrile and wheezing COVID-19 patients.

“Many are still watching because they are afraid of getting infected,” Li said. “Restaurant dinner can be postponed for now.”

The ruling Communist Party began dropping testing, quarantine and other restrictions in November as it tried to reverse a deepening economic crisis.

The “zero COVID” strategy confined millions of families to their homes for weeks, halted most travel to and from China and emptied the busy streets of major cities. That kept its infection rate low but crushed economic growth and fueled protests.

“People are going back to work, and I’ve seen children in shopping malls,” said Yang Mingyue, a 28-year-old Beijing resident. “Everything is back to normal. It’s really nice.

The ruling party is set to join the United States and other governments in trying to live with the disease instead of eradicating transmission. He has launched a campaign to vaccinate the elderly, which experts say is needed to prevent a public health crisis.

Members of the public expressed unease with the wave of infections but welcomed the change in strategy.

“I’m certainly a little worried, but to live, you have to be able to work normally, right?” said Yue Hongzhu, 40, a supermarket manager.

“Since the government allowed the opening, that means it’s not that bad, right?” Yue said. “If the virus was highly contagious and everyone’s life was in danger, the government wouldn’t let go.”

On Tuesday, the government announced it would ease restrictions on travel outside China and resume issuing passports for tourist travel for the first time in nearly three years. This creates a possible flood of Chinese travelers heading abroad at a time when other governments are alarmed by rising infections.

The United States, Japan and other governments have announced virus testing requirements for travelers arriving from China. They cite Beijing’s lack of information on the spread of the virus and possible mutations to new forms.

“The development of the epidemic is relatively rapid,” said Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, at a press conference on Thursday. “The flow of people and the risk of respiratory infectious diseases in winter can make the epidemic situation more complicated.”

The ruling party faces increased pressure to get consumers out of their homes and spending as global demand for Chinese exports weakens after the Federal Reserve and European central banks raised interest rates. interest in cooling economic activity and controlling soaring inflation.

China’s retail sales in November fell 5.9% from a year earlier. Imports fell 10.9%, a sign of a growing slowdown in Chinese domestic demand.

Exports fell 9% in November from a year earlier. Forecasters say China’s economy likely contracted in the last quarter of the year. They cut the annual growth outlook to less than 3%, which would be weaker than any year in decades except 2020.

The American Chamber of Commerce in China says more than 70% of businesses responding to a survey this month “were confident that China would recover from the current COVID outbreak in early 2023, enabling travel to incoming and outgoing business and tourism to resume thereafter”.

ING economist Iris Pang wrote in a report that slowing exports will make it harder to recover from the shutdowns. “The timing isn’t perfect,” she wrote.

Li, the restaurateur, said he and his wife moved to Beijing a decade ago to open a restaurant focusing on cuisine from southwestern Yunnan province.

They invested their savings and mortgaged their house to open two more outlets in 2019 just before the pandemic hit.

“Our priority now is to survive,” Li said. He said it could take up to three months for sales, which are less than half their pre-pandemic level, to return to normal.

Shi Runfei, a server at another restaurant, said anti-virus rules prevented him from visiting his hometown in neighboring Hebei province for much of the year/past years, and when he was cleared to travel, he required time-consuming quarantines.

“Now it’s different,” said Shi, 35. “Of course, there are always risks, but we just have to take self-protection measures.”

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AP video producers Olivia Zhang and Wayne Zhang contributed.

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