Inside China’s reopening: A Shanghai consultant eschews a contact-tracing app

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.

Vicky Zhao remembers the day Zhong Nanshan, China’s renowned pulmonologist, confirmed human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus. It was Jan. 20, a Monday: “That was the turning point.” 

Zhao, who works at an international consulting firm in Shanghai, rushed to order face masks. Between then and Jan. 23, when Wuhan locked down, she noticed more and more masked faces on the streets and supermarket staff scrambling to restock shelves of hand sanitizer.

“It was very surreal, because normally before Chinese New Year holidays we share chocolate or candy or just celebrate,” she said. Instead, “everyone was just buying crazy supplies.”

Her work had carried on as normal. When everyone left for the weeklong New Year holiday on Jan. 24, no one realized that they wouldn’t step back into the office for two months.

Shanghai, like many cities in China, never entered a full lockdown on the scale of Wuhan and other places in Hubei province; nonetheless, the pace of life in the city of 25 million slowed to a crawl. The Shanghai government extended the seven-day New Year holiday by one week in January and encouraged people to stay home. Residential communities and apartment complexes instituted entry restrictions and temperature checks. Restaurants closed, though delivery was still available. Tourist sites and museums shuttered in late January.

But just as Shanghai eased into its shutdown, it eased back out.

Shanghai’s East Nanjing Road, normally one of the busiest shopping streets in the world, in mid-April. Photo by Vicky Zhao.

Rapid diagnosis and extensive contact tracing early on in the outbreak helped Shanghai, a major financial and transport hub, keep cases relatively low. Companies that complied with government-issued criteria like temperature checks, provision of masks, and social distancing mechanisms were allowed to resume work as early as Feb. 10. The largest Starbucks in the world, Shanghai’s Reserve Roastery, reopened on Feb. 26 after closing in January.

By mid-April, nearly all of Shanghai’s museums and art galleries had reopened, with a number of them launching new exhibitions. The Bund, Shanghai’s famous riverside stretch of colonial architecture and high-end bars, is buzzing once more. And there’s evidence that Shanghai is reemerging as a tourist destination; a survey named it as a top-three destination for domestic travel for China’s Golden Week holiday, which began May 1.

As it started reopening in mid-February, Shanghai launched a health code system—an app-based tool to trace contacts and evaluate infection risk that’s now ubiquitous in China. In other cities, the color-coded QR system is a ticket out of lockdown and needed to access basic services. But Zhao hasn’t registered for Shanghai’s version yet. She’ll download it when she needs to. Her office building has its own QR entry code, and her sister has been dropping her off at work, so she doesn’t have to flash the app to access public transportation.

She hasn’t dined at restaurants—all of which now require a green QR code to enter—since January. “My kid is small, and I’m living with parents who are probably highly susceptible, so I’m very cautious,” Zhao said.

A coronavirus control checkpoint at Xintiandi, a popular shopping and dining district in Shanghai, in early March. Photo courtesy of Vicky Zhao

After seeing news of the Jan. 23 Wuhan lockdown, Zhao canceled a planned vacation to South Korea, fearing further travel restrictions might leave her stranded. Many of her colleagues who had returned to their hometowns for the Chinese New Year would stay there until mid-March, some trapped by lockdowns and others choosing to remain, since the office was closed and returning to Shanghai meant two weeks in home quarantine.

Zhao, 41, settled into a work-from-home routine. She was often too busy to cook, so she ordered lunch and dinner from restaurants, which continued to offer delivery service. She worked in her bedroom, and her son, who is 7, studied in his, attending classes on Zoom and using an iPad to interact with teachers.

Her parents, who live with her full-time, helped around the house. Sometimes she felt guilty and tried to pitch in with chores during the workday, but her family encouraged her to concentrate on work. “My son is super disciplined, and my parents are very supportive,” she said. 

Once, Zhao emerged from her room to take a break. Her son gave her a questioning look: Shouldn’t you be working? She explained she’d just finished a Zoom meeting and wanted to rest her eyes. Her son’s reply put a smile on her face: “Mum, I just finished a Zoom meeting myself too!”

Zhao’s office reopened in mid-March, at half capacity—employees take turns working in the office and from home. Zhao was happy to return to the office, but the first day back, she and her coworkers were met with a sad surprise: The office plants, without anyone to water them, had died.

Colleagues returning to Shanghai underwent a 14-day home quarantine before coming into work. Everyone wears masks and sits one meter apart. There’s a temperature scanner in the lobby, hand sanitizer and masks at reception, and everyone in the office checks their temperature twice daily and records the numbers in case a health inspector swings by.

As of April 29, Shanghai had 645 confirmed cases and seven deaths. The city government is offering coronavirus testing to anyone who wants it—at their own expense—in an effort assuage fears of infection so the economy can restart.

Shanghai’s schools reopened for older students—middle school and high school seniors—on April 27. Zhao’s son, a first-grader, is still at home.

When the outbreak began, it was winter, and the windows of Zhao’s apartment were shut. She can’t recall when they turned off the heaters and started cracking the windows to let air in, but the windows are open now. “Spring is actually here in Shanghai,” Zhao said.

“With birds chirping outside and trees getting these fresh shades of green,” Zhao said, “I was amazed to see how time flies and nature keeps its course, while we all sort of slowed down during this outbreak.” 

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 startup operations manager in Hangzhou sees automation accelerating
—A Beijing tech worker needs a quarantine certificate to dine out
—A Harbin university professor confronts a second lockdown

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