Shanghai authorities have begun dismantling fences around housing compounds and ripping police tape off public squares and buildings, to the relief of the city’s 25 million residents, before a painful two-month lockdown is lifted at midnight.
On Monday evening, some of the people allowed out of their compounds for brief walks took advantage of suspended traffic to congregate for a beer and ice cream on deserted streets, but there was a sense of wariness and anxiety among residents.
Most will be stuck indoors again until midnight, as they have been for the past two months under a ruthlessly enforced lockdown that has caused income losses, stress and despair to millions struggling to access food or get emergency healthcare.
The prolonged isolation has fuelled public anger and rare protests inside Shanghai and battered the city’s manufacturing and export-heavy economy, disrupting supply chains in China and around the world, and slowing international trade.
Life is set to return to something more like normal from Wednesday, when the passes issued by residential buildings for people to go out for a few hours will be scrapped, public transport will resume and residents can go back to work.
“Now that I’m going back to work so suddenly, I feel a little nervous,” said resident Joseph Mak, who works in education. “It’s hard to believe it’s actually happening.”
The easing of curbs applies only to those in low-risk areas, or about 22.5 million people. Residents in those areas will still have to wear masks and are discouraged from gathering. Dining inside restaurants remains banned. Shops can operate at 75% capacity. Gyms will reopen later.
Residents will have to get Covid tests every 72 hours to take public transport and enter public venues. Tough quarantine is still in store for anyone testing positive and their close contacts.
China is alone among major countries enforcing an uncompromising “zero Covid” policy that aims to eradicate all outbreaks as soon as they occur at just about any cost. It remains to be seen if frequent testing can keep Omicron under control.
Todd Pearson, managing director of Camel Hospitality Group, which operates eight restaurants, four bars and three gyms in Shanghai and neighbouring Suzhou, is wary.
His restaurants are only allowed to do deliveries, which amount for about 5% of revenue, not enough to pay salaries and rent. At least from midnight his workers who have been sleeping in the restaurants, stuck there due to the strict lockdown rules, can finally go home.
“I*m hopeful that they will rush things along quickly to restart the economy,” Pearson said. “I just hope it’s not at the cost of more outbreaks. I’m not sure many businesses or the people could handle much more.“
Economic activity in China has somewhat recovered in May from a dismal April as Covid curbs in major manufacturing hubs were gradually relaxed, although movement controls still depressed demand and restrained production.
Factory activity was at a three-month high in May, but contracted from a year earlier.
On Tuesday the British Chamber of Commerce released its annual position paper, warning that Covid restrictions and uncertainty about the future was having a negative impact on British companies in China. A survey of more than 600 members found 74% were “seriously impacted” by Covid zero policies, with almost 50% delaying planning investments.
“All we can expect is more uncertainty, disruption and potentially more lockdowns”, as China continues with its zero-Covid targets, said the chamber’s chair, Julian MacCormac.
“There is a real nervousness and concern that something like [Shanghai] could happen again in the current environment.”
The report found 43% of member companies were facing challenges including hiring foreign talent, and 23% had a net decrease in foreign staff. It said 41% were anticipating their staff will leave within a year.
Shanghai reported 31 cases for 30 May, down from 67 a day earlier, all within controlled areas.
Reuters also contributed to this report.