Beijing cuts flights to curb potential spread of mounting coronavirus cases

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Scores of domestic flights in and out of Beijing were cancelled on Wednesday as officials ramped up attempts to contain a coronavirus outbreak in the Chinese capital over the past week that has sparked fears of renewed wider contagion. Health officials recorded 31 new confirmed infections for June 16, bringing the cumulative infections since Thursday to 137 cases, the worst resurgence of the disease in the city since early February.

Authorities on Tuesday raised Beijing to a level two alert, the second-highest level in a four-tier COVID-19 emergency response level system. That reversed a one step downgrade from level two to level three a mere 10 days earlier. Some 27 neighbourhoods have been designated as medium-risk areas where people entering are subjected to temperature checks and registration.

One neighbourhood, near the massive wholesale food centre detected as the source of the latest outbreak, was marked high-risk. The city’s roads and highways were still open, companies and factories were not ordered to stop work, and there was no blanket curb on residential compounds. But movement of people in and out of the city was strictly controlled and subject to COVID-19 tests, while residents in high-risk areas were both quarantined and required to undergo tests. Kindergartens, primary schools and high schools were shut.

Aviation data tracker Variflight showed that half the scheduled inbound flights and 40% of outbound flights from Beijing Capital International Airport, one of the city’s two major airports, have been or will likely be cancelled on Wednesday. The majority of the flights are domestic routes.

State media reported that rail officials were granting full refunds on all tickets to and from Beijing booked before Tuesday evening, an apparent bid to discourage people from travelling even though services have not been officially cancelled. All outbound taxi and car-hailing services, and some long-distance bus routes to nearby Hebei and Shandong provinces were cancelled on Tuesday. Some Beijing residents worried that the city was inching closer to a lockdown, echoing the strict bans on movement earlier this year in the city of Wuhan, where the new coronavirus was first detected at a seafood market in December.

“What I’m worried about is whether there will be a level one response like it was before, making it impossible for people to work,” said a 23-year-old media sector worker who gave her surname as Wang. The Beijing outbreak has been traced to the massive Xinfadi wholesale food centre in the southwest of the city where thousands of tonnes of vegetables, fruit and meat are traded each day. Xinfadi is much larger than than the Wuhan sea food market, from where the virus spread around the world, infecting more than 8 million people.

Contagion risks 

State media has cited experts as saying the latest outbreak in Beijing was different from Wuhan because the cases were localised and the source of the infection was clear, allowing authorities to more easily get the situation under control. However, Hebei, Liaoning, Sichuan and Zhejiang provinces have all reported new cases linked to Xinfadi, leading provinces concerned about contagion to impose quarantine requirements on visitors from Beijing.

Heilongjiang, which only recently brought a local outbreak under control, said it will impose 21 days of quarantine on people who have had contact with Xinfadi or have a history of residence in medium to high risk areas in Beijing. The northeastern province said any other travellers from Beijing will be quarantined at a centralised location for up to three days, followed by another 14 days of self-isolation.

Authorities in the Chinese territory of Macau, the world’s biggest casino hub, said people who have been to Beijing within two weeks of arriving in Macau will be quarantine for 14 days at a designated location.