Masked crowds fill streets, trains after Wuhan lockdown ends

WUHAN, CHINA (AP) — After more than two months indoors, Wuhan resident Tong Zhengkun was one of millions of people enjoying a renewed sense of freedom when the Chinese city’s 76-day coronavirus lockdown was lifted yesterday.

“I haven’t been outside for more than 70 days,” an emotional Tong said as he watched a celebratory light display from a bridge across the broad Yangtze River flowing through the city. “Being indoors for so long drove me crazy.”

Streets in the city of 11 million people were clogged with traffic and long lines formed at the airport, train and bus stations as thousands streamed out of the city to return to homes and jobs elsewhere. Yellow barriers that had blocked off some streets were gone, although the gates to residential compounds remained guarded.

Tong said his apartment complex was shut down after residents were found to have contracted the virus. Neighbourhood workers delivered groceries to his door.

Such measures won’t be entirely abandoned following the end of the city’s closure, which began on January 23 as the virus was raging through the city and overwhelming hospitals. Schools are still closed, temperatures are checked when people enter buildings and masks are strongly encouraged. City leaders say they want to simultaneously bring back social and commercial life while avoiding a second wave of infections.

Medical staff from Jilin Province (in red) hug nurses from Wuhan after working together during the COVID-19 outbreak during a ceremony before leaving after Tianhe Airport was reopened in Wuhan in China’s central Hubei province. PHOTO: AFP

The ability to travel again is a huge relief, however, and around 65,000 were expected to depart by plane and train. Wuhan residents are now permitted to leave without special authorisation as long as a mandatory smartphone application powered by a mix of data-tracking and government surveillance shows they are healthy and have not been in recent contact with anyone confirmed to have the virus.

It didn’t take long for traffic to begin moving swiftly through the reopened bridges, tunnels and highway toll booths. Nearly 1,000 vehicles went through a busy highway toll booth at Wuhan’s border between midnight — when barricades were lifted — and 7am, according to a district Police Chief Yan Xiangsheng. According to airport official Lou Guowei, the first departing flight, MU2527, left Wuhan Tianhe International Airport at 7.25am for Sanya, a coastal city in Hainan province known for its beaches.

“The crew will wear goggles, masks, and gloves throughout the flight,” Chief Flight Attendant Guo Binxue, was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua News Agency. “It will be very smooth because we have made much preparation for this flight.”

Xiao Yonghong had found herself stuck in Wuhan after returning to her hometown on January 17 to spend the Lunar New Year with her husband, son and parents-in-law.

“We were too excited to fall asleep last night. I was looking forward to lockdown lift very much. I set up an alert to remind myself. I was very happy,” said Xiao, who was waiting for her train outside Hankou station with her son and husband, all three of them wearing masks and gloves.

Restrictions in the city where most of China’s more than 82,000 virus cases and over 3,300 deaths from COVID-19 were reported have been gradually eased as the number of new cases steadily declined.