Authorities in Beijing are racing to contain a Covid outbreak linked to a 24-hour bar known for its cheap booze and large crowds, with millions facing mandatory testing and thousands under targeted lockdowns.
The outbreak of 228 cases linked to the Heaven Supermarket bar, which had just reopened as restrictions in the Chinese capital eased last week, highlights how difficult it will be for China to succeed in its “zero Covid” policy as much of the rest of the world is trying to live with the virus.
The re-emergence of infections is also raising new concerns about the outlook for the world’s second-largest economy. China has only just shaken off the economic impact of a two-month Shanghai lockdown that has disrupted global supply chains.
“The prevention and control of the epidemic is at a critical time,” Beijing health official Liu Xiaofeng said at a press conference on Monday, adding that the sea bass-related outbreak of the world’s largest area of the city, Chaoyang, “was still under development”.
To show how seriously authorities are taking the situation, Chinese Vice Premier Sun Chunlan came to the bar and said Covid prevention measures should be stepped up, state media reported.
Those infected in the outbreak live or work in 14 of the capital’s 16 districts, authorities said.
Dine-in service at restaurants in Beijing resumed on June 6 after more than a month in which the city of 22 million people enforced various coronavirus restrictions. Many shopping malls, gyms and other venues have been closed, parts of the public transport system have been suspended and millions of people have been asked to work from home.
Chaoyang on Monday launched a three-day mass testing campaign among its roughly 3.5 million residents. Around 10,000 close contacts of bar patrons have been identified and their residential buildings locked down. Some planned school reopenings in the district have been postponed.
Queues snaked around testing sites on Monday for more than 100 yards, Reuters witnesses said. Large metal barriers had been erected around several residential compounds, with people in hazmat suits spraying disinfectant.
Other nearby businesses under lockdown include Paradise Massage and Spa salon. Police tape and security personnel blocked the entrance to the lounge on Sunday and authorities said a handful of people would be temporarily locked down for checks.
Last week, as dining restrictions were lifted, Heaven Supermarket Bar, designed as a large self-service liquor store with chairs, sofas and tables, regained popularity among young and rowdies hungry for socializing and parties during Beijing’s Covid restrictions.
The bar, where patrons check the aisles to grab anything from local heavy liquors to Belgian beer, is known to Beijing revelers for its tables strewn with empty bottles and patrons falling asleep on couches after midnight. .
Officials have not commented on the exact cause of the outbreak, or explained why they are not yet restoring the level of curbs seen last month.
The state-backed Beijing Evening News wrote on Monday that the outbreak was born out of shortcomings and complacency in epidemic prevention, and said that if it develops, “the consequences could be severe and would be as no one would want to see them”.
Shanghai has endured two months of lockdown, with restrictions lifted less than a fortnight ago. There was relief among its residents on Monday after mass testing for most of its 25 million residents over the weekend showed only a slight rise in daily cases.
But frustrations continued to simmer over the damage done by the lockdown, particularly to residents’ livelihoods. On Monday, downtown shopkeepers held up signs and shouted demands for rent reimbursement, according to videos widely shared on Chinese social media. The rare protest had dissipated by the time of Reuters’ visit on Monday afternoon, and there was a heavy police presence in the area.