Betsy Joles for NPR
Updated at 8:41 p.m. ET
Millions of people in China have been returning home from the Lunar New Year holiday and heading back to work. The holiday’s end date was extended in many cities, from Jan. 31 to Feb. 3, to help slow down the rapidly spreading coronavirus outbreak.
In Beijing, the capital city and one of the country’s most populous metropolitan hubs, the holiday was extended even later — to Monday, Feb. 10. As millions are expected to pack themselves onto crowded trains and planes to reenter the capital, the city is bracing for more coronavirus cases.
“We should be prepared for a big uptick [in numbers],” said Lin Yang, an assistant professor in epidemiology at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s nursing school.
More than 31,000 cases have been confirmed in China alone as of Thursday. But Beijing has not been hit hard by the outbreak so far; only 274 of those cases were found in the capital, a city of more than 21 million.
“Based on the experience in pandemics of 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, studies show that school closures and traffic restrictions can successfully delay the onset of the pandemic peaks, but it does not mean you will slow down or decrease the magnitude of the [pandemic],” said Yang.
In other words, travel restrictions in Beijing may only delay the full onset of the pandemic while buying time for local governments to marshal in public health resources.
To prepare for the potential uptick in coronavirus cases, Beijing is increasing its capacity to treat patients. On the northern outskirts of the city, hundreds of hastily assembled construction workers are expanding Xiaotangshan, a temporary treatment center for SARS victims built in 2003.
“It is going to have 1,000 beds. It should take about seven to eight days. Our boss didn’t even tell us how much we’re being paid, but we will figure that out later,” said a construction supervisor with the last name Xu. He did not provide a full name because he said he was not authorized to talk to foreign media.
Xu was relaxing at home in Baoding nearly two weeks ago, a city about half an hour away from Beijing by high-speed rail, when he got a call to assemble 150 workers for a new project in the capital. He left that same day. “Someone has to build this treatment center,” he told NPR.
A constant stream of trucks now enters the Xiaotangshan compound, carrying concrete and construction equipment. White chalk marks where the new walls of a quarantine ward and canteen will be. Xu hopes Beijing will never have to use this facility. In the meantime, he still sees it as his duty to expand it.
That commitment to contain the outbreak can be felt across the city in sectors large and small. Throughout the holiday, some essential staff in services like public transportation and health care have been required to work.
Not officially on this list are Beijing’s thousands of scooter delivery men. But they’re definitely on the job. For the last week, drivers like Zhai Xunlei have been feeding a city where many are reluctant to leave their homes for fear of infection. “We have to keep servicing households with elderly or infirm people,” he said.
Zhai couldn’t go home to the city of Baoding over the holiday because of his extra shifts, but he’s not resentful. “If we all took this time off, people who are truly sick who cannot leave home would be helpless,” he said.
Meanwhile, some who are returning to Beijing have found it difficult to reenter the city. Most apartment complexes now require occupants to register their recent travel history. Public places such as shopping malls and office buildings as well as subway stations require all patrons to have their temperature checked and to wear a face mask.
Beijing officials have repeatedly said people traveling back to the city with no feverish symptoms must be allowed to return to their homes even if they had traveled beyond municipal limits. But communities intent on keeping the coronavirus out are going ahead with a variety of voluntary, sometimes unofficial, measures aimed at returnees.
Shi, a logistics worker who works in package delivery, could not enter his apartment after returning to Beijing from his hometown in Shanxi province. Shi said his “supervisor pushed” him to come back to work, so he took a train to the city on Sunday. He didn’t provide his full name because he didn’t want to be seen as complaining against his employer.
“At first my Beijing landlord did not want to let me live in my apartment until my boss intervened — but it is not like I am coming back from [Wuhan], the outbreak quarantine zone,” he said. Shi was eventually let back into his own apartment.
Mao Shoulong, a professor of public administration at Beijing’s Renmin University, attributes some of the overly restrictive practices in Beijing to the strict censorship of domestic media: “The lack of in-depth Chinese-language press coverage is not conducive to helping people understand what they could do [to protect against the virus]. It only inspires panic or apathy.”