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Beijing ramps up coronavirus restrictions as cases spread to nearby provinces

Beijing had begun to return to normal after months of lockdown, now the capital has raised the alarm amid a new coronavirus flare-up.
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BEIJING — The Chinese capital stepped up social distancing restrictions, closed schools and heavily limited travel Wednesday, as it hurriedly tries to contain a new flare-up of coronavirus cases.

The fresh outbreak, which began a week ago and has been linked to the Xinfadi wholesale market, which supplies Beijing with 80 percent of its food, has alarmed authorities in Beijing, with fears the virus may already have spread to at least four other provinces in China.

The virus prevention and control situation in Beijing was described as "extremely grave" Tuesday by the city's top official, Party Secretary Cai Qi, at a meeting of Beijing's Communist Party Standing Committee.

"This has truly rung an alarm bell for us," Cai told participants.

On Tuesday, four provinces including Zhejiang, Liaoning, Hebei and Sichuan reported new cases linked to the Beijing spike, according to online state media outlet, Caixin. Officials also said they would impose quarantine measures on visitors from Beijing, in an attempt to limit the spread of the contagion.

Beijing's city government reported an additional 31 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday, bringing the total to 137 since the flare-up began last Thursday — the worst resurgence of the disease in the capital since February.

Image: People wearing face masks line up to get a nucleic acid test at a park in the Fengtai district, after a spike of cases of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Beijing, China
People wearing face masks line up to get a nucleic acid test at a park in the Fengtai district, after a spike of coronavirus cases in Beijing.Thomas Peter / Reuters

Beijing has gone into "wartime" mode, on a district level, officials said this week, with neighborhoods imposing 24-hour security checkpoints and all schools and kindergartens closing their doors and shifting lessons online — with fears they may not reopen in the fall.

The Beijing municipal government announced late Tuesday that it would raise the city's emergency response level from three to two — the second-highest level in a four-tier system — meaning residents were advised not to leave the capital unless necessary.

Full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

People living or working in so-called high-risk streets and areas near the Xinfadi market, were prohibited from leaving Beijing at all, Chen Bei, the deputy secretary-general of the Beijing municipal government, said.

Other residents were advised not to leave unless necessary and would have to undergo testing.

Authorities have raced to mobilize mass testing, with tens of thousands of people already swabbed at sites set up at sport stadiums and drive-through facilities.

So far, around 356,000 people have been tested in Beijing since Sunday, according to Zhang Qiang, the vice leader of the city's inspection and quarantine working group.

More than 1,000 domestic flights have also been canceled, according to the aviation data tracker VariFlight, which Wednesday showed some 700 flights had been canceled from the Beijing Capital International Airport and 395 flights from the Beijing Daxing International Airport.

No official public notice on a change in flight regulations has yet been issued by China's Civil Aviation Authority.

Along with Shanghai, authorities in the Chinese territory of Macau, the world’s biggest casino hub, announced that people arriving from Beijing would have to undergo a 14-day quarantine. The capital could also become a "no-go zone" for holidaymakers and business people from the rest of the country, according to reports in the state-run Global Times newspaper.

After months of lockdown measures, Beijing had begun to ease restrictions and life was slowly returning to normal, with attractions and businesses reopening.

During China's grand annual political convention in May — postponed during the height of the coronavirus outbreak — success over the handling of the pandemic was a major feature for the ruling Chinese Communist Party. Instituting mass testing and sweeping lockdowns, particularly in the city of Wuhan where the outbreak began, China thought it had curbed the spread of the disease.

Officials say they are adamant that Beijing will not become a "second Wuhan."

Reuters contributed to this report.