The Beijing authorities shut down a major seafood and produce market and locked down several residential complexes on Saturday after 53 people tested positive for the coronavirus in the city, renewing fears that China’s grip on the pandemic is not yet secure.
Nearly everyone who tested positive had worked or shopped at the Xinfadi market, a wholesale market on the city’s south side that sells seafood, fruit and vegetables, according to the Beijing health commission.
More than 10,000 people work at the market, which supplies 90 percent of Beijing’s fruits and vegetables, according to the state media. The virus was reportedly detected on cutting boards for imported salmon there.
The developments prompted the authorities to temporarily shut down the market, to partly or completely close five others in the capital, and to lock down 11 nearby residential communities and nine schools that had reopened after lockdowns that were put in place to curb the virus. State media outlets described the effort as a “wartime mechanism.”
Beijing is also tightening traffic controls into and out of the city, barring inter-provincial tour groups and suspending sporting events, according to official announcements and local news reports. Officials had already said on Friday that they would suspend plans for students in first, second and third grade throughout the city to return to school on Monday.
The stakes for the city and the country are high. A renewed outbreak in Beijing could undermine not only China’s public health, but also its geopolitical ambitions. China was the site of the first major coronavirus outbreak, but as the pandemic has ravaged the rest of the world, the authorities in China have loudly promoted their apparent success in controlling its spread as proof of the superiority of their top-down political system.
They have taken aggressive steps to prevent a second wave, including testing almost all of the 11 million residents of Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the outbreak began. The authorities appear to be especially wary of an outbreak in the capital city; even after other cities began welcoming domestic travelers, Beijing for a time maintained stricter requirements for new arrivals.
Before the new cluster of cases, Beijing had not reported any new locally transmitted cases for eight weeks.
China’s wet markets — where vendors sell fresh meat, seafood and produce — have come under scrutiny in recent months, because many of the first reported cases in Wuhan were tied to a seafood market there that has since been permanently closed. Epidemiologists have not arrived at a consensus on whether the market was the source of the virus.
Seven of the 53 people who tested positive over the previous three days had shown symptoms, while 46 were asymptomatic, according to Beijing health officials. Of the seven people with symptoms, six had not left Beijing in the previous two weeks, officials said.
The Beijing health commission said that at least three of the seven were employees of the Xinfadi market, including a 50-year-old purchaser for the market who was in serious condition and a 35-year-old salesman. Another three had visited the market, according to the state media. Officials did not announce any connection for the seventh person.
The asymptomatic cases were all market employees, with the exception of one who had been in close contact with a Xinfadi worker. They were discovered after health officials tested hundreds of workers en masse after the first cases were reported.
Officials also collected environmental samples and tested meat and seafood from the market, some of which came back positive, suggesting that workers could have been infected either through contact with an infected person or simply by visiting the market, said Pang Xinghuo, the deputy director of the Beijing Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
After the virus was detected on cutting boards for imported salmon, supermarket chains throughout the city discarded their stocks of salmon, according to the local news media.
Officials said they would set up temporary open-air trading posts to maintain the availability of fruit and vegetables.
All 10,000 workers at the Xinfadi market will eventually be tested, according to The Beijing News, a state-controlled newspaper. Officials have already tested more than 1,900 workers at markets across the city, according to the city’s health commission.
The authorities had also used the language of a wartime mechanism to describe their response in Wuhan, where residents were virtually prohibited from leaving their apartments for more than two months.
Qiqing Lin contributed research.