By Brenda Goh
XIANNING, China (Reuters) – Life started returning to normal on Wednesday after two months of lockdown in Hubei province, epicenter of China’s coronavirus outbreak, with traffic controls lifted, construction resuming and people catching buses and trains across once-shut borders.
Mainland China also reported a drop in new confirmed coronavirus cases to 47 on Tuesday, all of them in travelers returning home, down from 78 infections reported a day earlier.
Hubei, a central province that is home to some 60 million people, had announced on Tuesday that it was removing travel restrictions at midnight.
“I booked my ticket this morning after hearing the news,” said Chen Ting, who was accompanied by her three-year-old son among about 40 people getting off a train in Hubei’s Xianning city.
The 28-year-old had traveled from Qingyuan city in the southern province of Guangdong, where she runs a wholesale business. The coronavirus had forced her to cancel plans to visit her parents in February, after the Lunar New Year.
“I am so desperate to go back home now to see all of them there,” she said as she waited for her father to pick them up and drive to the family home in the nearby city of Huangshi.
On Wednesday evening in Xianning, residents strolled outside, carrying groceries or buying takeaway. Restaurants were only serving food for takeaway. Loudspeakers blared out promotions like buy one get one free. Everyone wore masks.
The lockdown of Hubei’s capital Wuhan will be lifted on April 8, a milestone in China’s war against the epidemic as Beijing shifts its focus toward stemming imported cases and rebooting the economy.
In Wuhan, there were also signs of normal life returning. Men in protective masks worked on a bridge as construction projects resumed, and residents waved from their apartment windows as a visiting medical team prepared to leave the city.
BACK TO WORK
The Hubei government on Wednesday told workers who had been quarantined at home to go back to work as soon as possible. The Wudang Mountains, a top scenic site, reopened for visitors.
Hubei Party Secretary Ying Yong said the government would continue to work hard to prevent a rebound in infections as population movements increase.
Travelers arriving in Xianning were subject to checks that lasted about 30 minutes and asked to show “health codes” on their mobile phones that proved they had not been in a high-risk area in the last fourteen days.
Passengers disregarded pleas to stand two meters apart.
Reflecting growing concern over imported cases, railway staff and police repeatedly said that those who had traveled from overseas needed to identify themselves.
“If you don’t report we will find out anyway,” said one officer. “And there will be trouble.”
Some people in the city expressed concern over reports on Tuesday that a man in Foshan in Guangdong province who had been in Xianning had tested positive for the virus. The official People’s Daily, which reported the case, did not say how he was able to drive out of Hubei province on March 17 with a friend.
Even as the lockdown in Hubei is eased, strict measures to control infections from abroad continue to be put in place.
The Hubei government said anyone arriving in the province from abroad must inform authorities of their medical and travel history two days prior to travel.
To prevent a surge in imported cases, China is ramping up quarantine and screening rules for all international arrivals.
The city of Quanzhou in Fujian province will cancel all international and regional flights, starting on March 26, after four imported cases from the Philippines were found on Tuesday, the provincial government said.
Beijing has already diverted flights to other cities where passengers will be screened and quarantined.
New imported cases in Beijing, Guangdong and Fujian declined, though the daily tally of new imported infections rose to a record 19 cases in the financial hub of Shanghai.
The total number of confirmed cases in mainland China was 81,218, with 474 imported infections at the end of Tuesday. The death toll in mainland China reached 3,281 as of the end of Tuesday, up by four from Monday.
(This story has been refiled to correct typo in paragraph 7)
(Reporting by Ryan Woo, Se Young Lee, Stella Qiu, Yawen Chen, Samuel Shen Liangping Gao, Roxanne Liu, Huizhong Wu, Min Zhang and Shivani Singh; Editing by Michael Perry, Christian Schmollinger and Giles Elgood)