Authorities in Beijing are racing to contain a Covid 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 228 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 disrupted global supply chains.
“Epidemic prevention and control are at a critical juncture,” said Liu Xiaofeng, a Beijing health official, at a news conference on Monday, adding that the outbreak linked to the bar in the city’s biggest district, Chaoyang, was “still developing”.
In a show of how seriously authorities are taking the situation, the Chinese vice-premier Sun Chunlan visited the bar and said Covid prevention measures would need to be strengthened, state media reported.
People infected in the outbreak live or work in 14 of the capital’s 16 districts, authorities have said.
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 centers, gyms, and other venues were closed, parts of the public transport system were suspended and millions of people were urged to work from home.
Chaoyang kicked off a three-day mass testing campaign among its roughly 3.5 million residents on Monday. About 10,000 close contacts of the bar’s patrons have been identified and their residential buildings put under lockdown. Some planned school reopenings in the district have been postponed.
Last week as dine-in curbs were lifted, Heaven Supermarket Bar, modeled as a large self-service liquor store with chairs, sofas, and tables, reclaimed its popularity among young, noisy crowds starved of socializing and parties during Beijing’s Covid restrictions.
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 state-backed Beijing Evening News wrote on Monday that the outbreak had arisen from loopholes and complacency in epidemic prevention, and said that if it grew, “consequences could be serious, and would be such that nobody would want to see”.
Shanghai 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 people at the weekend showed only a small rise in daily cases but frustrations have continued to simmer about the damage the lockdown caused, especially to residents livelihoods.