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April 7, 2020, 11:46 p.m. EDT

China’s pandemic epicenter Wuhan reopens: ‘I haven’t been outside for more than 70 days’

11-week lockdown finally ends, allowing mostly free movement

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By Associated Press


AFP/Getty Images
A medical worker from Jilin Province cries while hugging nurses from Wuhan after working together during the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan during a reopening ceremony Wednesday at Tianhe Airport.

WUHAN, China — After 11 weeks of lockdown, people went outdoors and by the thousands boarded the first trains and planes leaving Wuhan as the last restrictions on movement were lifted Wednesday in the Chinese city where the coronavirus pandemic began.

Wuhan’s unprecedented lockdown was a model for countries trying to stop the coronavirus. With the restrictions ending, Hubei’s provincial capital begins another experiment: resuming business and ordinary life while preventing more illnesses.

The city’s 11 million residents are now permitted to leave without special authorization 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.

The occasion was marked with a light show on either side of the broad Yangtze River, with skyscrapers and bridges radiating animated images of health workers aiding patients, along with one displaying the words “heroic city,” a title bestowed on Wuhan by president and Communist Party leader Xi Jinping. Along the embankments and bridges, citizens waved flags, chanted “Wuhan, let’s go!” and sang a capella renditions of China’s national anthem.

“I haven’t been outside for more than 70 days,” said an emotional Tong Zhengkun, who was watching the display from a bridge. Residents in his apartment complex had contracted the virus, so the entire building was shut down. He couldn’t go out even to buy groceries, which neighborhood workers brought to his door.

“Being indoors for so long drove me crazy,” he said.

It didn’t take long for traffic to begin moving swiftly through the reopened bridges, tunnels and highway toll booths, while hundreds waited for the first trains and flights out of the city, many hoping to return to jobs elsewhere. Nearly 1,000 vehicles went through a busy highway toll booth at Wuhan’s border between midnight — when barricades were lifted — and 7 a.m, according to Yan Xiangsheng, a district police chief.

Within hours of the lockdown ending, roughly 65,000 people had left the city by train and plane alone, according to local media.

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 in recent weeks as the number of new cases steadily declined. The government reported no new cases Wednesday.

While there are questions about the veracity of China’s count, the unprecedented lockdown of Wuhan and Hubei have been successful enough that other countries adopted similar measures.

“The people in Wuhan paid out a lot and bore a lot mentally and psychologically,” resident Zhang Xiang said. “Wuhan people are historically famous for their strong will.”

During the 76-day lockdown, Wuhan residents had been allowed out of their homes only to buy food or attend to other tasks deemed absolutely necessary. Some were allowed to leave the city, but only if they had paperwork showing they were not a health risk and a letter attesting to where they were going and why. Even then, authorities could turn them back on a technicality such as missing a stamp, preventing thousands from returning to their jobs outside the city.

Residents of other parts of Hubei were allowed to leave the province starting about three weeks ago, as long as they could provide a clean bill of health.

Despite the new freedom, many prevention measures such as wearing masks, temperature checks and limiting access to residential communities will remain in place in Wuhan. And people leaving the city will face numerous hurdles, such as 14-day quarantines and nucleic acid tests, at their destinations.

In an editorial, the ruling Communist Party’s flagship People’s Daily warned against celebrating too soon.

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