SHANGHAI — China on Friday expanded a public travel ban — including flights, trains and buses — in and out of at least eight cities in an attempt to contain the spread of the deadly coronavirus, right as the country officially takes off a week for the Lunar New Year, the country’s most important festive occasion and a key shopping season.
Chinese officials have confirmed 25 deaths from the virus and 830 cases, casting a shadow over the holiday. In place of a celebratory mood across the nation, traditionally marked by family and friends gathering to dine and swap cash and gifts, officials have urged the public to stay away from crowded places, advocated for increased disinfecting and hygiene measures, and canceled a number of public celebrations. National institutions like the Palace Museum, which houses Beijing’s Forbidden City, have closed for the holiday, issuing refunds for tickets.
Since the virus appeared in mid-December, it has spread from Mainland China to Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand and the U.S.
The travel lockdown first was implemented Thursday morning for Wuhan, the city which figured as ground zero for the outbreak, and by evening, the travel halt had extended to more cities in the province of Hubei: Huanggang and Ezhou, affecting nearly 20 million people. By Friday morning, the smaller cities of Chibi, Zhijiang, Huanggang, Qianjing, and Huangshi also faced similar travel restrictions.
The holiday witnesses the world’s largest annual human migration — nearly 3 billion trips taken over the holiday last year, according to China’s ministry of transport.
The health scare spells bad news for the travel and restaurant sector and is likely to have repercussions for retailers, too. Retail staff across mainland China at many international brands — including Coach, Gucci, Nike, Tod’s — regardless of whether there has been a confirmed outbreak in their city, have been instructed to don face masks.
Social media discussions showed that Wuhan had taken on an eerie, ghost town-like feeling as people shut themselves indoors. Photos shared online showed the city’s grocery store shelves cleared off and malls left empty, however the broader impact across the nation is likely to vary.
“[Mainland] China is very big, thus at this stage only consumer sentiment in the affected cities is negatively impacted,” the brokerage Jefferies commented. In contrast, it said Hong Kong, which is a very dense and compact city, would move more dramatically if there was an outbreak. The city, still grappling with political troubles, confirmed its first coronavirus case Wednesday.
At the same time, Jefferies noted, based on trends from the 2002 SARS outbreak, that consumer sentiment can rebound very fast once the outbreak is under control.
Fears accelerated earlier this week after confirmation that the virus was able to spread person-to-person, playing into larger fears it could evolve into a health crisis on the level of SARS which struck in 2002, taking 774 lives and infecting over 8,000 people. At the time, the Chinese government was criticized for attempting to cover-up of the severity of the outbreak.
Wuhan, a tier-two inland city is the capital of Hubei province, reachable in under five hours from Shanghai by high-speed train. The city’s fish and meat market has been pinpointed as the likely source of the outbreak.
The World Health Organization declined to declare the coronavirus an international public health emergency, as it did with swine flu and ebola, but said it would reconvene in ten days to review the situation.