HONG KONG—China is battling its biggest coronavirus outbreak in months, imposing lockdowns on hard-hit areas, quarantining more than 20 million people and urging citizens to forgo unnecessary travel as the Lunar New Year holiday approaches in February.
The tightening, which comes during northern China’s coldest winter in a generation, underscores official skittishness nearly a year after authorities shut down the city of Wuhan to contain the initial outbreak.
On Tuesday, China’s National Health Commission reported 42 new cases of locally transmitted symptomatic infection, a day after recording 85 such cases—its highest daily count in six months.
The bulk of the recent cases have been detected in the northern province of Hebei, which surrounds China’s capital city of Beijing.
Local authorities in the city of Langfang on Tuesday placed its five million residents in home quarantine for seven days while rolling out citywide testing. Authorities had imposed similar measures on the provincial capital of Shijiazhuang last week, barring people and vehicles from leaving the city and halting public transportation within the city.
Hebei’s provincial government has also postponed an annual policy-setting meeting that typically gathers hundreds of top officials and political advisers, which precedes China’s national legislative conclave in March.
I’m used to it by now, after all that has happened last year.
For the tens of millions of Chinese citizens who crisscross the country during the Lunar New Year for their annual family reunion, the rising case count means a second straight year of disruptions to the most important holiday on the calendar.
In recent days, provincial and municipal authorities across China have encouraged their citizens to refrain from travel during the festive season, which begins this year on Feb. 12.
Lavine Luo is heeding the advice. The 24-year-old Ms. Luo, who works for a state-owned enterprise in Beijing and therefore felt an extra sense of duty to comply, scrapped her plans to return home to the southern metropolis of Guangzhou after a string of infections emerged in December.
“I’m used to it by now, after all that has happened last year,” she said.
Others are still holding hope of a reversal in the situation in the coming weeks.
a 26-year-old Shanghai-based fitness coach, wants to hold off on making a decision about visiting her parents in the northeastern city of Shenyang until February. “If the infection numbers are staying high or getting worse, then I’ll stay put,” she said.
An online poll conducted last week of more than 15,000 people by Banyuetan, a magazine published by the state-run Xinhua News Agency, found respondents almost equally divided between those choosing to forego travel, those anxiously waiting and those hurrying home for the festivities.
In recent months, Chinese authorities have turned to a familiar playbook of targeted lockdowns, mass testing and travel restrictions to smother outbreaks.
a public-health expert and director of the infectious diseases department at Huashan Hospital in Shanghai, wrote on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform that he was confident Hebei would suppress the outbreak within the next month.
At the same time, health authorities are vaccinating millions across the country, though that is unlikely to change the picture dramatically before next month’s holiday.
Beijing’s municipal government said Monday it had inoculated more than one million residents and aims to vaccinate more than 100,000 residents a day until Lunar New Year, at more than 240 sites across the city. On Saturday, Chinese health officials said they had administered vaccines to more than nine million people and planned to inoculate 50 million key workers nationwide before the start of the long holiday.
Even so, public-health officials have been warning about greater risks of new infection clusters emerging throughout the winter, particularly from asymptomatic carriers.
The National Health Commission has urged citizens to limit gatherings and to shop online. Some local governments have offered extra wages to workers who don’t return to their hometowns over the long holiday, while private companies have been asked to stagger holidays to reduce the throngs of travelers.
To disincentivize travel, some localities are requiring returnees to produce a negative nucleic acid test, even those coming back from low-risk areas, while others are asking residents to report their travel plans beforehand.
China State Railway, which in mid-December forecast some 407 million train trips during the peak travel rush between late January and early March, is offering full refunds on train tickets purchased before Jan. 7.
Authorities have also been aided by social pressure that has kept compliance high.
When a colleague of Ms. Nie, the fitness coach in Shanghai, returned from Shijiazhuang in early January and her government-backed smartphone health app signaled that she had potentially been exposed to the virus, Ms. Nie and others called on the colleague to self-isolate, she said.
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Such caution is likely to incur an economic cost, though the damage has so far mostly been confined to Hebei, without affecting China’s overall economic outlook, said
co-founder of the consulting firm Trivium China.
“Hebei is taking the hit for now to protect the smooth running of the capital city,” Mr. McArver said.
China’s leadership has made clear that its priority is containing the pandemic, and on Saturday, Premier
warned officials against covering up or underreporting cases, describing epidemic control as a matter of national security and social stability, as well as public health.
Though economic activity had mostly returned to normal by the summer, domestic travel had only bounced back to about two-thirds of pre-coronavirus levels by November,
a Beijing-based analyst at consulting firm Gavekal Dragonomics, told clients in a note. Ms. Cui said it was unlikely authorities would issue a nationwide ban on travel and gatherings unless the outbreak significantly worsens.
Even so, Ms. Nie is worried that if infections rise, tighter rules could make working closely with clients impossible.
“We all have to cut back a bit now so that we all can continue to live a relatively normal life,” she said.
—Bingyan Wang and
contributed to this article.
Write to Sha Hua at firstname.lastname@example.org