Authorities in Beijing are racing to contain a Covid-19 outbreak traced to a 24-hour bar known for cheap liquor and big crowds, with millions of people facing mandatory testing and thousands under targeted lockdowns.
The outbreak of nearly 200 cases linked to the Heaven Supermarket bar, which had just reopened as curbs in the Chinese capital eased last week, highlights how difficult it will be for China to make a success of its “zero Covid” policy as much of the rest of the world tries to live with the virus.
The re-emergence of infections is also raising fresh concerns about the outlook for the world’s second-largest economy. China is only just shaking off the economic impact of a two-month lockdown of Shanghai that also caused disruption to global supply chains.
Dine-in service at Beijing restaurants resumed on 6 June after more than a month in which the city of 22 million people enforced various coronavirus restrictions. Many shopping centres, gyms and other venues were closed, parts of the public transport system were suspended and millions of people were urged to work from home.
“We have to test every day now. It’s a bit of a hassle, but it’s necessary,” said a 21-year-old resident surnamed Cao, who runs a convenience store in Chaoyang, the central district where the bar cluster was discovered. “The virus situation has hurt our business a bit; it’s down about 20-30%.”
On Monday, the authorities began a three-day mass testing campaign of Chaoyang’s 5 million residents. About 10,000 close contacts of the bar’s patrons have been identified, and their residential buildings placed under lockdown. The reopening of some schools in the district, Beijing’s largest and most populous, has been postponed.
Queues snaked around some testing sites on Monday, according to Reuters’ witnesses. Large metal barriers had been installed around several residential compounds, with people in hazmat suits spraying disinfectant nearby.
Last week, as dine-in curbs were lifted, Heaven Supermarket bar, which is modelled as a large self-service liquor store with chairs, sofas and tables, reclaimed its popularity among a young and noisy crowd after the lifting of Covid restrictions.
The bar has a raucous reputation and is known among Beijing revellers for its tables plastered with empty bottles and customers falling asleep on sofas after midnight.
Almost 200 Covid cases have been linked to the bar since 9 June, in an outbreak described by authorities as “ferocious” and “explosive”. People infected in the outbreak live or work in 14 of the capital’s 16 districts, authorities have said.
Officials have not commented on the exact cause of the outbreak, nor explained why they are not yet reinstating the level of curbs seen last month.
The bar cluster was caused by loopholes and complacency in epidemic prevention, the state-backed Beijing Evening News wrote in a commentary piece.
“At a time when … normality in the city is being restored, the fall of Heaven Supermarket bar means the hardship and effort of countless people have been in vain,” it said, adding that if the outbreak grows, “consequences could be serious, and would be such that nobody would want to see”.
The bar and other businesses nearby were under lockdown, with police tape and security staff blocking the entrances.
A handful of customers and staff at the nearby Paradise Massage & Spa were locked in temporarily for checks, according to the authorities.
In all, Beijing reported 51 cases for Sunday. This followed 65 the previous day and was in line with a national trend of falling cases.
Shanghai, which completed mass testing for most of its 25 million residents at the weekend after lifting its lockdown and many of its other restrictions at the start of the month, reported 37 cases on Sunday, up from 29.
As Beijing authorities tackled new Covid cases in April, retail sales in the capital shrank 16% year on year, while property sales nosedived by 25%. Data for May, which is due later this month, is expected to be dire as well.
Before the bar cases, there had been high hopes for a rebound in June.