Inside China’s reopening: A Harbin university professor confronts a second lockdown

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.

Harbin, the capital of China’s northernmost Heilongjiang province, is evidence that the lifting of coronavirus lockdowns is a precarious endeavor.

In early April, the situation in the city of 10 million was finally looking up for Bill Bailey, a 60-year-old American who teaches English at Heilongjiang International University in Harbin. He had been largely confined to his on-campus apartment for 10 weeks starting in mid-January owing to the pandemic.

“The city was just starting to lift a lot of the lockdown regulations,” said Bailey. By the middle of the month, cars were back in the streets, and people had returned to reopened shops, businesses, and restaurants.

But then the city reimposed some lockdown measures as more coronavirus cases emerged.

Officials in Harbin, known for its namesake beer and annual ice festival, recently reported that a local COVID-19 cluster infected at least 78 people in the city. In April, Harbin had 61 active infections, Chinese media report, up from two active cases in all of Heilongjiang province, where Harbin is located, on March 30. The slide backward was significant enough that China’s central government punished 18 local officials with warnings and “administrative demerits” for insufficiently containing the virus in the city. Among those reprimanded was Chen Yuanfei, Harbin’s deputy mayor, who has played a leading role in the city’s response to COVID-19.

Cleaners blast away dirt on empty streets in northern Harbin as residents stay home once again after a second outbreak in the city in mid-April. Photo by Bill Bailey

Harbin’s proximity to Russia is a concern amid this “second wave” as China’s northern neighbor contends with its own coronavirus outbreak. Russia reported at least 87,000 confirmed cases and 794 deaths as of last week, most of which had occurred since the start of April. Since March 29, Russians—like all foreigners—have been banned from entering China, but the Suifenhe border crossing, about 250 miles to the east of Harbin, had remained open to Chinese nationals returning home until April 7. Some 2,000 Chinese citizens poured across the border from late March until it was finally shut on April 7. It’s still closed today.

Following that move, Harbin took the additional precaution of halting train service to and from Suifenhe, a Chinese town on the border that has reported at least 400 cases imported from Russia. And Harbin implemented broader travel measures, banning nonlocals and vehicles without city registration from entering certain residential zones. The city also announced that all arrivals from abroad would be subject to a 28-day quarantine, doubling the city’s previous 14-day policy. The extended quarantine likely reflects the experience of a student returning to Harbin from abroad, who is suspected of infecting others even after two weeks of isolation.

Beyond official directives, residents and private employers are renewing social distancing measures on their own, Bailey said. On a Sunday in mid-April he observed that the streets were nearly empty. Buses were running, but he was the lone passenger as he traveled to the grocery store. It would be his last casual trip. On April 20, authorities at his university ordered him not to leave campus, barring an “absolute emergency,” and advised that he stop interacting with his neighbors. And this week, the school banned him and his colleagues from leaving campus entirely after a university staff member came down with a suspected case of coronavirus.

For Bailey, another lockdown—even if unofficial—is disappointing, especially since Harbin’s notoriously frigid winter is finally starting to thaw. Bailey, a self-described “outdoors person,” had hoped to take advantage of the warmer weather to explore the city, travel the region, and pursue his interest in photography.

What’s more, the new measures mean it will be difficult, if not impossible, for Bailey to see his wife, who has been in quarantine with family in Beijing since the beginning of the outbreak in January. Bailey moved to Harbin in August, and his wife had planned to reunite with him in Harbin after the Chinese New Year holiday.

“We thought things were getting back to normal, and I was really getting used to being able to go outside,” said Bailey.

The second outbreak has also dashed Bailey’s hopes that he’d be able to return to teaching in a classroom by mid-May. For now, he’s instructing as many as eight classes per week online and is trying to gear his students up, once again, for spending extended periods of time at home. “I tell them it’s really frustrating, but we just have to accept the fact that, in order to keep safe, we try not to be around anybody unless you have to,” he said.

A freezing Harbin winter may be turning into a cold spring.

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 Beijing tech worker needs a quarantine certificate to dine out

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