A man wears a protective face mask near the human sculptures on display outside an art gallery in Beijing – AP Photo/Andy Wong

Handfuls of people milled around one recent morning at a popular art district in Beijing, where galleries are among the first in the world to begin re-opening as coronavirus restrictions subside.

After being shuttered for most of the year, the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art opened its first show on Thursday. Face masks are a must with capacity capped at 30; people are asked to maintain a distance of 1.5 metres.

Visitors trickling in are greeted with a facial recognition robot scanning their temperatures and a security guard asking for personal details to be registered on a mobile app to assist with contact tracing. 

“These are excellent artworks,” said Cheng Liukai, 20, a university student, gesturing at one video installation. “I’m not afraid of getting virus at all anymore.”

This is China’s new normal, as the country where the coronavirus pandemic emerged gradually lifts lockdowns while battling a second wave of infections.

City officials say Beijing remains in “wartime mode” against the virus, a signal for all to remain vigilant.

Authorities engineering a return to a more recognisable pace of life are taking no chances, immediately re-instituting lockdowns whenever new cases are found. 

A handful of infections are still being reported daily, often appearing in clusters along borders to the north, by Russia and North Korea, and the south, lining south-east Asia.

Entire cities have been sealed again, with citizens forced to quarantine for as many as 35 days and to undergo nucleic acid tests.

In Shanghai, 20 people were forced to quarantine after one infection was detected on Monday – the first in two months.

About half a dozen cases found early May in Wuhan – the first discovered at ground zero of the pandemic after lockdowns lifted – sent the city into a frenzy as officials set out to test the city’s 11 million residents over 10 days. 

But mass testing has proven a challenge, with long queues making social distancing difficult, and results unable to account for those who may fall ill later.

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Travellers coming through certain affected areas, like Wuhan, are still required to quarantine upon arrival, reporting temperatures multiple times a day and having sensors or cameras installed at their doors to ensure compliance.

Delegates attending China’s annual parliament meetings starting today – postponed from early March – have shortened them from the usual two weeks to one, and asked people to quarantine and be tested in advance.

To enter public areas like outdoor parks, shopping malls, banks and bars means submitting to frequent temperature checks, displaying a “green” health code – a contagion risk profile – and registering personal details, such as name, mobile and ID numbers.

Many restaurants have begun letting larger groups dine together, relaxing previous rules of one person per table. But most still aren’t allowed to seat at full capacity, in order to maintain a healthy distance between patrons.

Gyms and movie theatres are also slowly reopening, though like other indoor spaces, continue to require people to wear masks and maintain a distance. One rock climbing gym in Beijing is asking visitors to book time slots to regulate capacity, but is allowing equipment rental, such as shoes.

Some offices are still asking employees to work from home, continuing the use of virtual meetings. 

Domestic travel doesn’t always require negative test results, depending on departure and arrival ports, but some are getting tested in hopes of avoiding complications on the road. 

Coming in and out of housing compounds still requires flashing a pass to prove residency, though guards are at times growing more relaxed.

And taped markers on the floor in elevators or at entrances to indicate a respectful distance have become a common sight.

While masks are no longer required outdoors, in practice, people continue to wear them out of lingering fears of infection, and also simply to avoid being ostracised.

“I’m just wearing it for the security guards, but honestly I don’t think these work at all,” said Yu Shaoyuan, 32, a cameraman.

Additional reporting by Yiyin Zhong



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