By NG HAN GUAN and JOE McDONALD Associated Press
WUHAN, China (AP) — Shopkeepers in the city at the center of China's virus outbreak were reopening Monday but customers were scarce after authorities lifted more of the anti-virus controls that kept tens of millions of people at home for two months.
"I'm so excited, I want to cry," said a woman on one of Wuhan's major shopping streets, the Chuhe Hanjie pedestrian mall, who would give only the English name Kat.
Kat said she was a teacher in the eastern city of Nanjing and was visiting her family when most access to Wuhan, a city of 11 million people and the manufacturing hub of central China, was suspended Jan. 23 to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
"After two months trapped at home, I want to jump," said Kat, jumping up and down excitedly. "I want to revenge shop."
While other governments tighten travel and other controls, the ruling Communist Party has rolled back curbs on Wuhan and other areas as it tries to revive the world's second-largest economy after declaring victory over the outbreak.
Wuhan in Hubei province is the last city still under travel controls. Residents are allowed to go to other parts of Hubei but cannot leave the province. Restrictions on other Hubei residents were lifted March 23. The final curbs on Wuhan end April 8.
Wuhan became the center of the most intensive anti-disease controls ever imposed after the virus emerged in December. Some researchers suggest it may have jumped to humans from a bat at one of the city's wildlife markets.
The ruling party suppressed information about the outbreak and reprimanded doctors in Wuhan who tried to warn the public. As late as Jan. 19, city leaders went ahead with a dinner for 40,000 households to celebrate the Lunar New Year.
Local leaders held one more event, a Jan. 22 holiday gala at which musicians and actors were sniffling and sneezing, before the government acknowledged the severity of the problem. The next morning, residents awoke to news that their sprawling city that straddles the Yangtze River was cut off from the outside world.
Police set up roadblocks at expressway entrances. Only truckers leaving the city to collect food and a handful of other drivers with official passes were allowed through. Bus and subway service inside Wuhan shut down.
Restaurants, shops, cinemas and other businesses were ordered to close, leaving streets empty and silent in a foreshadowing of controls that would spread to other countries. Families were ordered to stay home.
Restrictions spread to cities around Wuhan and eventually expanded to cover some 800 million people, or more than half of China's population. Restaurants, shopping malls, factories and other businesses were closed nationwide and families were told to stay home.
Wuhan became the center of a massive effort to treat the sick, understand the virus and stop its spread. Two temporary hospitals with more than 1,000 beds each were built and a third one was set up in an exhibition center. Hundreds of military doctors and nurses were dispatched to the city, along with tons of medical supplies.
President Xi Jinping visited Wuhan for the first time March 10 in a show of official confidence that the virus was under control. The next day, the government began to ease controls on Hubei, allowing some factories and other businesses deemed essential to the economy or to producing daily necessities to reopen.
On Monday, 70% to 80% of shops on the Chuhe Hanjie mall in the city center were open but many imposed limits on how many people could enter. Shopkeepers set up dispensers for hand sanitizer and checked customers for signs of fever.
Buses and subways started to run again Saturday and the train station reopened, bringing thousands of people to the city.
At the same time, the ruling party has rolled out a massive propaganda effort to portray its leaders as the heroes of the outbreak and deflect accusations they allowed the virus to spread due to politically motivated foot-dragging.
Government spokespeople have suggested the coronavirus's origin is unknown, contradicting earlier official statements that it came from Wuhan. A foreign ministry spokesman said the virus might have been brought to Wuhan by visiting American military officials, a claim that prompted an angry response from Washington.
Wuhan suffered 2,547 coronavirus deaths, accounting for about 80% of China's total fatality toll of 3,186 as of midnight Sunday, according to the National Health Commission. The country had a total of 81,470 confirmed cases.
Officials are under orders to revive manufacturing, retailing and other industries while also preventing a spike in infections as people return to work.
This week, visitors to Wuhan were required to report how they arrived and their reason for coming. Hotel guests were checked twice a day for fever. They were required to show a code on a smartphone app that tracks the user's health status and travel.
Authorities set aside five hotels to quarantine visitors including foreigners who lack Chinese identity cards. Hotel staff and volunteers in protective coveralls sprayed guests and their luggage with disinfectant.
Passengers who wanted to board a public bus had to show a smartphone health code to volunteers in red vests.
Some of Wuhan's major shopping malls reopened Monday. Others planned to reopen later in the week.
Customers at the upscale Wuhan International Mall were greeted by employees who wore masks and carried signs that said, "Please wear masks all the way. Please don't gather. Please keep a safe distance."
Cinemas, teahouses and some restaurants still were closed.
Automakers and other manufacturers in Wuhan have reopened but say they need to restore the flow of components from suppliers before production returns to normal levels.
Some are waiting for employees who went to their hometowns for the Lunar New Year holiday and were stranded when plane, train and bus services in areas deemed at high risk of the disease were suspended.
On Monday, some parents were on the streets with children, but traffic was light on streets that normally are jammed with cars.
The owner of a candy shop on the Chuhe Hanjie mall said two of her four employees are back at work but she wasn't sure whether the others were willing to come back.
"We've only prepared a little stock," said the owner, Li Zhen. "Most people are still afraid of the virus."
A poster at the entrance to the pedestrian mall asked customers to wear masks, cooperate with fever checks and show a smartphone health code.
A banner nearby said, "Wuhan We Are Coming Back. Thank You."
Two women who wore protective clothing that identified them as medical workers were surrounded by pedestrians who waved Chinese flags at them in a gesture of gratitude. Li gave them bags of candy.
"We may have to wait for a while to see when things can return to normal," said Li.
McDonald reported from Beijing. Associated Press producer Olivia Zhang contributed to this report.