Beijing authorities placed part of the city in a closed state on Monday, testing tens of thousands of people as they hastened to stem another outbreak of the corona virus that signaled a nerve-wracking rift in the Chinese capital.
President Xi Jinping had said from the outset that Beijing, the seat of Communist Party power and a crowded metropolis, should be a fortress against the pandemic, and local officials have taken strict measures to keep infections down. Until now, efforts seemed to protect the capital from the virus after it surfaced in Wuhan, a city in central China late last year.
While dozens of new cases in Beijing seem light compared to the hundreds and even thousands of infections reported daily in other countries, China has been shocked by the new outbreak, causing the government to fire local officials and restore some recently eased restrictions. Business revival highlights the challenges governments around the world face in reopening economies while the virus continues.
“We think this is dangerous,” Chen Xiaoxi, the owner of a store about three kilometers from a market related to the new outbreak, said by phone. He said he was waiting for the results of a nucleic acid test to check if he had the virus. “It is a concern; everyone is concerned. This is not an ordinary disease. We wait at home and cannot go out. “
The city government said Monday that it had detected 79 coronavirus infections in the past four days, of which 36 confirmed on Sunday. Almost everything seemed to eventually be traced to the huge, busy Xinfadi food market in southern Beijing.
Mr. Xi, who is also the leader of the ruling Communist Party, has made no public comments about the latest cases, but rather emphasized the importance of controlling outbreaks in Beijing and Wuhan.
“The security and stability of the capital directly relates to the broader prospects for the party and the country,” he said in February when giving orders about the epidemic.
Some Chinese disease control experts said Beijing seemed to be responding quickly to the outbreak. Yet this failure in the defense of the capital seemed to annoy Mr. Xi’s subordinates. Two local officials and the general manager of the Xinfadi market were rejected on Sunday for what city officials said it was not fast enough to go against the infections. A Deputy Prime Minister warned that the outbreak could increase.
“The market is densely packed with many people moving around and there is a high risk that the outbreak will spread,” Sun Chunlan, Deputy Prime Minister overseeing health policy, said at a meeting on Sunday: according to Xinhua, the official news agency. “Take firm and decisive measures to thoroughly prevent its spread.”
Until this outbreak, Beijing had remained without new locally acquired cases for 56 days. Officials were particularly concerned that the virus would be transmitted by Chinese who would return to the city from abroad.
To quell the outbreak, the government has released a playbook of policies and restrictions that have been tightened during China’s nationwide struggle against the epidemic.
The authorities closed and sealed the market over the weekend. City officials tested 90,000 residents from neighborhoods around Xinfadi market and another market suspected of a role in the infections, the government said Monday. Residential areas in those neighborhoods are sealed, and authorities were racing to track down and isolate anyone who was infected. The area is home to many migrant workers from other parts of China.
Beijing City Council announced on Monday that neighborhoods in the rest of the city would also intensify controls, requiring entry, temperature controls and extensive disinfection to be staffed 24 hours a day. The government banned restaurants from holding banquets and other large gatherings.
Beijing spokesman Xu Hejian said at a news conference on Monday, “We need to fully understand that epidemic control in the capital is long, complex and burdensome.”
Sunday afternoon, 111 people had been ordered in supervised isolation in the Fengtai District, the southern Beijing area that includes the market, due to their potential contact with infected people. The government said it had claimed rooms in 11 hotels to accommodate people.
Eleven residential areas near the Xinfadi market were under strict surveillance last weekend to prevent visitors from entering and most residents leaving. Officials said that students in Beijing have resumed classes could choose to stay at home if they wanted to.
Residents near the market described being tested for the virus by medical workers taking throat swabs. One resident, who gave only his last name, Cao, said he was concerned that the virus might spread to residents like him as they walked around the apartments waiting to be tested.
While Communist Party leaders seemed to view the outbreak as an almost embarrassing insult, epidemic experts sought to reassure the public. They said that China, like other countries, should get used to the idea that outbreaks were likely even if overall infection rates declined.
“Beijing will not be second Wuhan,” Zeng Guang, senior epidemiologist at China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, was quoted by the Beijing Daily, the city’s main official newspaper. “Don’t get swamped. Heed the government’s orders and trust the disease fighters and doctors.”
Still, the number of cases in Beijing is worrying because it can be traced back to the city’s main food market, where normally thousands of traders, suppliers and workers from outside Beijing crowd with buyers from all over the city.
Typically, Xinfadi provides about 70 percent of the fresh vegetables consumed in Beijing and 10 percent of its pork, a the city official said last week. On Monday, officials said 200,000 people have visited the market since May 30, although that estimate may have included repeated visits.
“The good news is that all cases are related to the Xinfadi market and there have been no cases without a transmission route,” said Zhang Wenhong, a medical expert at Fudan University in Shanghai, said in an online comment on Sunday.
“The bad news is that the capacity of the Xinfadi market is astonishing and it is unclear where a new flash point will emerge,” Dr. Zhang, who has become a prominent voice in China’s epidemic policymaking.
The infections increase the risk of further cases in shops and restaurants where the food ends up. City officials have rushed to assure residents that other markets will boost their food supply.
Xinfadi’s customers include many shoppers, especially retirees, who travel far to the market for its varied, inexpensive products. The city council ordered everyone who has been there recently report to the authorities.
The government’s aggressive detection efforts have already shown that the coronavirus has spread to sellers and workers in the market, as well as some people who had shopped there.
But on Monday, experts had not yet said how the virus came on the market. The city government said traces of the virus surfaced on surfaces in the market, including salmon cutting boards. The finding yielded unproven theories that the virus was spread to the salmon or workers who treated it, and supermarket chains in the city threw out their salmon stocks, according to local news reports.
But Wu Zunyou, a researcher at the Chinese Center for Disease Control, said on a government website on Sunday it would take more time and testing to determine the source. Many of the first infections in Wuhan late last year were related to a market selling seafood and wild game, but officials have yet to say publicly how the virus has spread in that market.
Dr. Zhang, the Shanghai expert, said the Beijing outbreak was a lesson in what Chinese citizens need to get used to.
“Nearly zero cases are normal for epidemic prevention in China,” he wrote. “I hope society will adapt to this new standard as soon as possible.”
Amber Wang contributed research.