China advises against travel, big gatherings during Spring Festival



Small gatherings, masks at all times and travel warnings. The Spring Festival 2021 is shaping up to be a quieter one after Chinese authorities issued COVID-19 safety guidelines ahead of the holiday season as the virus continues to cast a shadow over the country.

The Joint Prevention and Control Mechanism of the State Council, a task force coordinating China's anti-epidemic response across multiple ministries, issued last week several recommendations and precautions for people to stay safe during the upcoming Spring Festival.

The Spring Festival is arguably the biggest date on China's cultural calendar, a time for family reunions, social gatherings and big dinners. The seven-day holiday also prompts a travel rush described as "the largest annual human migration"as millions make the trip back home to ring in the new year with their loved ones or hit the road for sightseeing.

A face mask left on a surface. /CFP

But the coronavirus changed that. Last year, China began recording cases of what would later be known as COVID-19 around the Spring Festival, with the central city of Wuhan, where the first infections in the country surfaced, going into lockdown on January 23, 2020, one day before the Lunar New Year's Eve. The drastic measure dampened the festive mood across the country and signaled the beginning of months of social distancing, movement restrictions and disruptions to everyday life.

One year on, China has largely contained the outbreak on its soil, but recent sporadic cases and local infections are pushing authorities to continue keeping their guards up in the lead-up to the Golden Week, which this year falls on February 11-18. As of 10:00 a.m. BJT on Monday, 45 localities on the Chinese mainland have been designated as medium-risk areas.

Small reunions, preferably online

While encouraging virtual meetings as much as possible, the notice recommended that family gatherings should be limited to 10 people at most. Those exhibiting symptoms like cough and fever should sit social events out.

It also called for extra measures for activities involving 50 or more people. Priority groups need to be vaccinated before the Spring Festival, according to the guidelines. Last week, China approved the public use of a homemade vaccine against COVID-19, with more than 73,500 people at higher risk of infection receiving the jab in Beijing in the first two days of an immunization campaign.

Holiday travel not advised

Recent years have seen a sizable number of holidaymakers choosing to go on trips during the Spring Festival, but Chinese tourism authorities are recommending against traveling this year.

Liu Kezhi, director of the Market Management Department at the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, has advised against unnecessary travel and is discouraging traveling abroad or to medium- and high-risk areas within China.

The official said the ministry has yet to allow travel agencies and online travel companies to resume their outbound tour services, and will continue to manage the flow of visitors to scenic spots and entertainment venues, which are currently operating at 75 percent capacity.

The suspension of new approvals for commercial performances from Hong Kong and Macao special administrative regions, the Taiwan region or overseas remains in place, Liu said.

Personal protection still important

Wearing masks, observing social distancing and hand hygiene are still important, said Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Wu advised the public to be ready to wear masks, especially in densely populated areas and places with poor ventilation.