A Uniqlo sleepover and a 48-hour job interview: China’s ultra-strict COVID policies are trapping people in malls and office buildings for days

The measures are making for awkward moments—but they're keeping Omicron out.

Two years since the Chinese city of Wuhan came to a standstill for 76 days, China is still enforcing mass lockdowns but now it’s doing so with more precision and sophistication, even if it means catching residents increasingly off-guard.

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Two years since the Chinese city of Wuhan came to a standstill for 76 days, China is still enforcing mass lockdowns but now it’s doing so with more precision and sophistication, even if it means catching residents increasingly off-guard.

After Beijing found its first case of Omicron earlier this month, authorities sealed off an office building where the person infected with Omicron worked, forcing hundreds of workers to stay overnight while they waited for the results of their COVID-19 tests. Such local lockdowns have become commonplace in China to keep out the virus, especially as the country battles the highly transmissible variant of COVID-19 and outbreaks in cities across the country.

In Shanghai, authorities recently kept shoppers in a Uniqlo, a Japanese clothing chain, for 48 hours, while they tested everyone for COVID-19 after someone infected with the virus visited the store. One Shanghai resident told the New York Times that after attending a meeting at an office other than her own, she got an email instructing her to return to the office for a COVID test. After doing so, she was locked in the office with workers from that company for 58 hours while they all awaited the results. Another office worker told the Times that they went to a job interview, only to get locked in the office for 48 hours for COVID testing, while needing to hide their whereabouts from their current employer.  

China’s COVID-19 containment measures may appear increasingly draconian in the era of Omicron, but as of now at least, even the highly transmissible COVID variant hasn’t outsmarted China’s battle-tested anti-COVID measures. Cases are falling and authorities are relaxing COVID restrictions in regions where Omicron seemed poised for uncontrolled spread.   

Beijing

On Monday, Beijing authorities reported six new cases of COVID-19 in the country’s capital, upping Beijing’s weekly total to 49.

Xu Hejian, a spokesperson for the Beijing’s government, called the situation “severe and complex” on Sunday, as Beijing appears to be dealing with simultaneous chains of Omicron and Delta cases.

City authorities attributed four new Delta cases to Fengtai, a district in the southwestern portion of the city, and said the area is now “high-risk” for COVID-19 spread. Authorities are now planning to test all 2 million district residents for COVID early this week and have barred residents from leaving the city for the time being. Chinese authorities, meanwhile, attribute the cases in Fengtai to a cold-chain storage facility, believing a frozen package imported from abroad sparked a Delta outbreak.

Last week, authorities traced an Omicron case to a woman who received a package in the mail arriving from Canada, even though experts said it was highly unlikely that someone caught the virus from the mail.

Separately, Beijing 2022 Olympic organizers said on Sunday that they have confirmed 78 cases of COVID-19 out of 2,586 Olympics participants who have arrived in the country since Jan. 4. Chinese authorities are ramping up efforts to ensure that all athletes and Olympics-related staff are completely separated from the Chinese public in the Olympic bubble, ensuring athletes do not stray from the Olympic village and their hotels and banning almost all spectators from attending events.

Xi’an

Xi’an, a city of 13 million in central China, lifted lockdown restrictions for the first time in over a month, city authorities announced on Monday.

Xi’an had recorded over 2,000 cases of the Delta variant since mid-December, marking China’s largest community outbreak since the virus first spread in Wuhan in early 2020.

To quell the outbreak, Xi’an imposed some of the country’s most intense restrictions since the start of the pandemic, confining some residents to their homes for weeks. The lockdown forced some residents to barter with one another for food because they couldn’t go to the grocery store. Residents reportedly suffered heart attacks and women had miscarriages after hospitals denied them care due to COVID rules. The reports went viral and triggered the first inklings of public pushback against China’s COVID-zero policy.

But weeks later, Xi’an appears to be returning to normal life.

Last Tuesday, Xi’an logged zero COVID-19 cases for the first time in over a month, and authorities began gradually easing some restrictions and allowing parts of the city to reopen. On Monday, Xi’an announced that the city’s lockdown is officially over. It lifted restrictions on shops, restaurants, and entertainment venues, while restarting the city’s bus routes, subway lines, and airport terminal.

Tianjin

Tianjin, a city near Beijing, also appears to be easing restrictions after containing China’s first local Omicron outbreak.

Tianjin recorded its first Omicron case on Jan. 8, prompting city authorities to place residents under various levels of lockdown. In some high risk areas, residents were unable to leave their homes for any reason while residents in other areas were only allowed to leave to buy essential goods.

In the last few weeks, Tianjin tested every resident for COVID-19 four times, uncovering dozens of new infections. Tianjin announced zero cases once again last week, and on Saturday, the city lifted lockdown measures for thousands of residents who remained in isolation. That day, Japanese carmaker Toyota also announced that it had resumed operations at its car factory, which it jointly runs with China’s FAW Group, after closing the plant on Jan. 10 due to the outbreak.  

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