Inside China’s reopening: A Beijing tech worker needs a quarantine certificate to dine out

May 4, 2020, 9:00 AM UTC

This is part of a series on China’s emergence from coronavirus lockdowns, featuring seven people who are living it.

After nearly three months of quarantine, Cathy Fu, a communications professional at a tech firm in Beijing, celebrated her first taste of freedom at a local hot pot restaurant, famed for its exceptional customer service. That day, however, the usually welcoming staff tried to turn Fu away.

“When I arrived, I had to show the staff at the counter my QR health code but, when they scanned it, there was a problem,” Fu said, referring to the color-coded QR codes that log information about users’ travel and health on smartphone apps. Fu’s code revealed she had been to Hubei province—where the outbreak began—during the past 14 days. According to Beijing’s rules, she should have been serving a two-week quarantine.

“The day I went to eat hot pot I’d just come out of quarantine, which I had to do after traveling back to Beijing from Hubei, where I had been stuck inside since Chinese New Year,” Fu said. “I had to show the restaurant staff the certificate my compound gave me, which indicated I had completed the home quarantine period. Eventually, they let me in.”

Beijing never implemented the kind of blanket lockdown that Wuhan endured during the worst of China’s COVID-19 outbreak. Yet Fu’s experience illustrates that the capital is still approaching its coronavirus comeback timidly, employing precautionary tactics—such as diverting flights to other cities—that go beyond measures taken in other Chinese metropolises.

Restaurants remained officially open in Beijing while Fu was hunkered down in Hubei, but a system of temperature checks, health code scans, and mandatory distancing sprung up in the capital. Many residential compounds restricted access, and an environment of fear—coupled with the mandatory closure of offices—encouraged most residents to shelter at home.

Beijing, which has had 593 reported cases of COVID-19 and eight deaths, is teetering back to normality, but remains on edge. Before reopening in April, schools conducted drills to practice new operating procedures for mitigating the risk of infection. Teachers played the role of returning students, while other staff ushered them through a check-in process that includes a temperature scan and a quarantine protocol should one of the students show a fever. Middle and elementary schools remain shut indefinitely.

Meanwhile, Beijing’s eastern Chaoyang district—home to international embassies and luxury malls—became the only “high risk” area in China as of April 16 after a returning student developed symptoms of COVID-19. Like all arrivals in Beijing, the student had to complete a two-week home quarantine but showed signs of the disease afterward, already having made close contact with over 60 others.

Malls and some tourist spots are open. Fu visited the Summer Palace—a verdant palatial complex in the northwest corner of Beijing—the weekend after her release. Her group of four had to book tickets online and select an arrival time as part of new social distancing measures. They went in the afternoon; the morning was already full.

Magnolias bloom in Beijing’s Summer Palace, March 27, 2020.
Costfoto/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Loudspeakers blared reminders to submit to temperature screenings, but Fu doesn’t remember having hers taken. It’s likely the Summer Palace, once the emperor’s retreat from the dusty heat of Beijing, uses infrared cameras to scan crowds for signs of fever. Subway stations and office lobbies in Beijing do the same.

The gateway to Fu’s office in Zhongguancun, Beijing’s startup hub, is guarded by infrared cameras, too. Employees, who returned to the office in mid-February, are checked on again during the day to make sure they haven’t developed a fever at work. During her conversation with Fortune, a colleague arrived at Fu’s desk with a thermometer in hand to check her temperature: 98.5 F. Normal.

Read the other stories in this Fortune series:

—A Shenzhen entrepreneur gets a 6 a.m. throat swab and mandatory quarantine
—A Wuhan college student still avoids restaurants and public transit
—A tech founder in Chengdu returns to a changed workplace
—A Shanghai consultant eschews a contact-tracing app
—A startup operations manager in Hangzhou sees automation accelerating
—A Harbin university professor confronts a second lockdown

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