Amid worries about the economic impact of halted business activities and lockdown measures following the new coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, Chinese authorities have ordered all public transportation, except in the virus ground zero of Hubei Province, to reopen.
It also asked all essential businesses, except in areas with a severe outbreak, to reopen on Feb. 11.
Analysts have expressed concerns that more people interacting in public and at their workplaces—especially with the virus capable of being spread during the incubation period—could spread the virus further.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping has said the economy needs to be stabilized, and he requested that businesses avoid large-scale layoffs due to the virus outbreak.
Chinese businesses resumed operations on Feb. 10 after an extended Lunar New Year break; private companies in regions under strict quarantine measures remained closed.
Return to Work
Cong Liang, secretary general of the National Development and Reform Commission, an agency that issues macroeconomic policies, said, “All businesses related to the national economy and people’s livelihood should return to work immediately. Major projects need to resume as soon as possible.”
He added that other businesses that are “not ready” can be temporarily suspended. Workers in areas with a severe outbreak or those in non-essential positions can postpone their return to work.
When a reporter asked what businesses should do if an employee becomes infected with COVID-19, He Qinghua, first-class inspector of the disease control bureau in China’s National Health Commission, said: “If the patient is found at an early stage, we don’t need to shut down the business. We only need to observe the related close contacts.”
He added that if the virus spreads within the company, then the firm should “take some measures,” without elaborating.
In the city of Beijing, authorities also loosened up quarantine measures, amending the rule from allowing limited vehicle traffic on the road, to allowing all private vehicles on weekdays and limited vehicles on weekends.
Meanwhile, Xu Yahua, an official in the country’s Transport Ministry—in charge of railway, road, air, and water transportation—ordered roads nationwide to reopen in order to support businesses that are resuming operations.
He said local authorities would not be allowed to close entrances and exits of highways without permission, block provincial main roads or roads in rural areas, nor set up checkpoints at highways or provincial roads.
Xu said all Chinese provinces except Hubei should restore public transportation, including inter-province buses, inter-city buses, and urban subways and buses.
He added that truck drivers who deliver goods to Hubei do not need to be quarantined at home for 14 days if their body temperature is healthy and the driver has not visited the capital of Wuhan, where the virus first broke out.
But the risk of contagion remains. A 28-year-old worker from Dongya Textile Factory in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, started to exhibit symptoms on Feb. 7 and was sent to the hospital. More than 200 workers at the factory were placed under quarantine afterward.
The outbreak is already taking a toll on small businesses, hurt from disruptions since late-January after local governments extended the Lunar New Year holidays and urged people to stay home.
Xinchao Media, which places advertisements in elevators, will cut 10 percent of its workforce, or 500 employees, to “ensure survival,” the company said in a post on its official WeChat account on Feb. 10.
Nie Wen, an analyst from financial firm Hwabao Trust, told Reuters, “It is possible that the virus could result in two to three million lost jobs in the first quarter.”
In Beijing, only 11,500 restaurants were operational last week, or 13 percent of the total, the Beijing Municipal Market Supervision Bureau said.
Quarantine is broadly believed to be the most efficient way to stem the virus from spreading. Other countries’ governments have arranged at least 14 days’ quarantine for their citizens repatriated from Wuhan and Hubei Province.
And before the State Council’s announcement, more than 80 Chinese cities were locked down. There was almost no inter-province public transport available.
“Lockdown is isolating the virus, and returning to work creates the opportunity for co-workers to be in close proximity with each other,” and thus increase the risk of the virus spreading, said Tang Jingyuan, a U.S-based China affairs commentator, who is also a medical doctor.
At the same time, “the Chinese government is in a dilemma. The Chinese economy will collapse if businesses don’t go back to work now,” he said.
For example, Beijing Benz—a joint-venture between Chinese automaker BAIC Motor and German firm Daimler AG—sent a letter on Feb. 6 to the government of Tianjin city, where its factories are based.
In the letter, Beijing Benz said it loses roughly 400 million yuan ($57.42 million) every day due to halted production.
“Restaurants, shops, delivery companies, and nearly all Chinese service businesses were shut down after the outbreak. If the manufacturing cannot operate, the Chinese economy will come to a standstill,” Tang said.
According to Chinese official data, the service sector contributed 53.3 percent of the country’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product) in 2018, while manufacturing contributed 39.7 percent.
Tang believes Chinese authorities are risking the virus’s spread in order to restore economic activity. “It is betting Chinese people’s lives over the economy,” he said.
Reuters contributed to this report.