WUHAN, China (AP) — The reappearance of Wuhan's favorite breakfast noodles is a tasty sign that life is slowly getting back to normal in the Chinese city at the epicenter of the global cornavirus outbreak.
Zhou Guoqiong still isn't allowed to serve customers inside her shop as part of social distancing rules that are some of the strictest in the world.
But the steady stream of customers who leave with bags of “reganmian,” or “hot dry noodles," smothered in peanut sauce, testifies to a powerful desire to enjoy the familiar again after months of lockdown since the virus was first detected in December. The favorite snack, usually sold from carts or in small restaurants, is as much a trademark of Wuhan as deep-dish pizza is for Chicago or spaghetti is for Rome.
“I’m happy as long as there is business,” Zhou said. Five days since they reopened, she and her husband now sell several hundred bags of noodles every day, less than before the outbreak but more than enough to keep them busy.
Earlier in the lockdown, Zhou said she would receive messages from customers complaining about how long they hadn't had their noodles, deepening her anxiety after the city was closed off on Jan. 23 and its hospitals were overwhelmed with patients. In all, the city has recorded 2,548 deaths from virus and more than 50,000 cases.
Despite radically falling numbers of infections, Wuhan and the rest of China aren't out of the woods yet, as officials repeatedly point out.
“At present, the epidemic situation in China is not over. It's still stressful to control imported cases and prevent a resurgence of indigenous cases, and the demand for related medical supplies also remains high," foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a daily briefing Tuesday.
The head of the National Health Commission, Ma Xiaowei, said Tuesday that the “most dangerous, most critical stage" of the domestic outbreak appears to have passed. But he was insistent that strict quarantines on travelers and other restrictions such as school closures will only be lifted gradually and very, very carefully.
Across the country, the economy is just starting to revive, and the government announced Tuesday it plans to delay the national college entrance exam by a month until July 7-8. The capital, Beijing, and hardest-hit Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, were also given special permission to make alternative scheduling plans, the education ministry said.
China says almost all of its coronavirus cases are now brought into the country by travelers from abroad, and Wuhan has not recorded any new confirmed or suspected cases in a week. Officials have said it must go a full 14 consecutive days without new cases before they lift draconian travel restrictions and social distancing demands, although residents are anticipating they will be allowed to travel again to some degree by April 8.
That can't come soon enough for Mr. Xiao, who runs a small butcher shop and is guardedly optimistic about the future. He said his stock can last for 10 days at the most and he needs to see a big jump in business.
“I estimate in the next several months, I can sell half a cow every day," said Xiao, who declined to give his full name.
Questions remain, though. Will his three partners rejoin the business? And with no other work skills, what will he do if sales don't pick up?
Along Yanzhi Road in Wuhan's Wuchang district, shops were doing a brisk business in staples such as meat and noodles, with loudspeakers blaring to attract customers.
Outside a food market, a long line formed of mostly elderly customers who kept their distance from each other. All were wearing masks as required, and some added hats and rubber gloves.
The market operates only from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and allows in just 30 customers at a time who can stay a maximum of 20 minutes each. Others who can't or don't want to make the trip can have items brought to their homes, and delivery men were exiting with rolls of toilet paper and bags of rice.
One of those in line, 70-year-old retired civil servant Xiao Yuxia, said she lives by herself and plans to eat fish for the first time in two months.
Her biggest challenge during the lockdown was a leg injury, she said. Not feeling safe going to a hospital, she endured pain while walking and used up all her remaining medication.
While many Chinese ordered what they needed using phone apps, 75-year-old retired worker Wang Haitao said he found that too confusing, and he and his wife are finding fewer choices on the list of options provided by community volunteers.
Buying food and medicine is his main concern, Zhang said. Though he leaves the house for only up to two hours a day because he is still worried about the risk of infection, he'd already been standing in line for half an hour.
Along with meat, fresh vegetables appear to be in good supply, although the selection may be a little monotonous. The food boxes delivered by volunteers to low-rise compounds typical of older neighborhoods such as Yanzhi Street were loaded mainly with carrots and cabbages.
The variety may be slightly better at the vegetable stalls set up around residential compounds, but here social distancing rules get scant attention. Customers and sellers gathered in groups with little distance between them, bargaining and exchanging cash.
A delivery man who works in the area but declined to give his name said he leaves all his packages at the fences set up to isolate residential compounds. After resuming his job two days earlier, he has his work cut out for him, with warehouses stuffed with packages that have been stuck there for months, he said.
“We are still delivering the packages that people bought before the Lunar New Year," he said. "It’s hard to tell which are daily necessities bought after the virus outbreak.”