Amid streets newly bustling with cars and pedestrians, Wang Chun celebrated the lifting of a virus lockdown on her hometown of Wuhan on Wednesday with a dance outdoors after two and a half months largely cooped up at home.
"I'm so happy Wuhan has defeated the virus," Wang said after recording a K-Pop-inspired duet with a male partner for posting on the internet. Neither of them wore face masks, at least for a brief few minutes.
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After she put on the mask again, Wang confronted the question many of the city's 11 million residents are asking themselves: When will they be going back to work?
"That's a very good question," Wang responded with a giggle.
Wuhan ended its 76-day lockdown Wednesday morning, allowing residents to again travel in and out of the city without special authorization through the use of a mandatory smartphone app powered by a mix of data-tracking and government surveillance showing they are healthy and have not been in recent contact with anyone confirmed to have the virus.
Long lines formed at the airport and train and bus stations as thousands streamed out of the city to return to their homes and jobs elsewhere. Yellow barriers that had blocked off some streets were gone, although the gates to residential compounds remained guarded.
After more than two months indoors, Wuhan resident Tong Zhengkun was one of millions enjoying a renewed sense of freedom.
"Being indoors for so long drove me crazy," an emotional Tong said as he watched a celebratory midnight light display from a bridge across the Yangtze River flowing through the city, where the coronavirus outbreak began late last year.
Tong said his apartment complex was shut down after residents were found to have contracted the coronavirus. Neighbourhood workers delivered groceries to his door.
Such measures won't be entirely abandoned following the end of Wuhan's closure, which began on January 23 as the virus raged through the city and overwhelmed hospitals. Schools are still closed, people are still checked for fevers when they enter buildings, and masks are strongly encouraged. City leaders say they want to simultaneously bring back social and commercial life while avoiding a second wave of infections.
The economic costs of the outbreak in Wuhan and across China have yet to be calculated but are expected to be severe. Estimates of job losses range into the tens of millions, with the government offering aid to small and medium size businesses that furnish the most employment.
The ability to travel again is a huge relief, however, and about 65,000 people were expected to depart Wednesday by plane and train. It didn't take long for traffic to begin moving swiftly through reopened bridges, tunnels and highway toll booths. Nearly 1000 vehicles went through a toll booth at Wuhan's border between midnight — when barricades were lifted — and 7am, said Yan Xiangsheng, a district police chief.
Airport official Lou Guowei said the first flight left Wuhan Tianhe International Airport at 7.25am for Sanya, a coastal city in Hainan province known for its beaches.
"The crew will wear goggles, masks, and gloves throughout the flight," chief flight attendant Guo Binxue was quoted as saying by China's official Xinhua News Agency. "It will be very smooth because we have made much preparation for this flight."
Xiao Yonghong had found herself stuck in Wuhan after returning to her hometown on January 17 to spend the Lunar New Year with her husband, son and parents-in-law.
"We were too excited to fall asleep last night. I was looking forward to the lockdown lift very much. I set up an alert to remind myself. I was very happy," said Xiao, who was waiting for her train outside Hankou station with her son and husband, all wearing masks and gloves.
At the airport, Chen Yating took personal protection a step further, wearing white coveralls, gloves, a mask and a baseball cap. She was waiting to catch a flight to the southern Chinese business hub of Guangzhou.
"We are living in a good era," Chen said. "It is not easy to have today's achievement."
The end of Wuhan's lockdown came one day after Japan declared a state of emergency for Tokyo, Osaka and five other prefectures to try to stem the spread of the virus. India and much of Europe and the US have also issued stay-at-home orders, although not nearly to the same extreme as Wuhan.
Restrictions in the city where most of China's more than 82,000 virus cases and over 3300 deaths from Covid-19 were reported have been gradually eased as cases declined.
The government reported no new cases in the city on Wednesday, but said 62 had been recorded elsewhere — 59 of them coming from abroad. That underscores the government's new emphasis on preventing new infections from overseas as well as a second wave of domestic cases, particularly among those who might have the virus but are not showing symptoms.
In most cases, the virus causes mild to moderate symptoms such as fever, cough and sore throat. But for some older adults and the infirm, it can cause pneumonia and lead to death. Over 307,000 people have recovered.
While there are questions about the veracity of China's count, the unprecedented lockdown of Wuhan and Hubei province, where the city is located, have been successful enough that other countries adopted similar measures.
"The people in Wuhan paid out a lot and bore a lot mentally and psychologically," resident Zhang Xiang said. "Wuhan people are historically famous for their strong will."
During the lockdown, Wuhan residents could leave their homes only to buy food or attend to other tasks deemed absolutely necessary. Some were allowed to leave the city, but only if they had paperwork showing they were not a health risk and a letter attesting to where they were going and why. Even then, authorities could turn them back on a technicality such as missing a stamp, preventing thousands from returning to their jobs outside the city.
Residents of other parts of Hubei were allowed to leave the province starting about three weeks ago, as long as they could provide a clean bill of health. People leaving the city still face numerous hurdles at their final destinations, such as 14-day quarantines and nucleic acid tests.
Wuhan is a major centre for heavy industry, particularly autos, and while major plants have restarted, the small and midsize businesses that employ the most people are still hurting from both a lack of workers and demand. Measures are being instituted to get them back on their feet, including 20 billion yuan ($2.8 billion) in preferential loans, according to the city government.
The exact source of the virus remains under investigation, though many of the first Covid-19 patients were linked to an outdoor food market in the city.
— Associated Press producer Olivia Zhang in Wuhan, China, and writer Yanan Wang in Toronto contributed.