Shanghai authorities have started dismantling fences around housing compounds and tearing down police tape from squares and public buildings, as the city prepares to lift a two-month lockdown at midnight (1600 GMT).
The ruthlessly enforced restrictions have sowed despair among the city’s 25 million residents and left many struggling to get food or find emergency healthcare.
They have also fueled public anger and rare protests in Shanghai and hit the city’s manufacturing and export economy, disrupting supply chains in China and around the world.
Life is expected to return to something more normal from Wednesday, when passes needed to be out for a few hours are scrapped, public transport resumes and residents are encouraged to return to work.
“Now that I’m so suddenly going back to work, I feel a little nervous,” said Joseph Mak, who works in education. “It’s hard to believe this is actually happening.”
The easing of curbs only applies to those in low-risk areas, around 22.5million people. Residents will still be required to wear masks and are discouraged from gathering in groups.
Dining inside restaurants will also remain banned, while shops will be allowed to operate at 75% capacity.
Residents will be required to be tested for COVID-19 every 72 hours to take public transportation and enter public places and those who test positive, as well as their close contacts, will still be required to undergo strict quarantine.
China is alone among major countries with an uncompromising “zero COVID” policy that aims to eradicate all epidemics as soon as they occur, regardless of the cost.
The highly transmissible variant of Omicron is likely to return and it remains to be seen whether frequent testing can keep it under control.
A different life
Todd Pearson, chief executive of Camel Hospitality Group, which operates eight restaurants, four bars and three gyms in Shanghai and neighboring Suzhou, is wary.
His restaurants are only allowed to make deliveries, which accounts for about 5% of revenue, not enough to pay salaries and rent. At least from midnight its employees, who had been sleeping in restaurants as they were stuck there due to strict lockdown rules, can finally go home.
“Hopefully they will ramp things up quickly to get the economy moving again,” Pearson said. “I just hope it’s not at the cost of new outbreaks. I’m not sure many companies or people could handle much more.
Shanghai reported 31 cases as of May 30, down from 67 the day before, all in controlled areas. The downward trend in cases is happening in many other cities across China, with new daily infections falling to 174 from 184, nationwide.
Other countries, which have decided to coexist with the virus even as infections spread, are reporting thousands of new cases daily.
Once Shanghai’s lockdown is lifted, life will still look very different in the city compared to those places.
Some bank workers said they would be required to wear full hazmat suits and face shields when they begin facing the public on Wednesday.
A bank worker, who gave only his surname Qin, said he would take basic supplies to work, in case a colleague tested positive and staff were forced to self-isolate in the office.
“I have to pack clothes and supplies to leave at the office. Just in case,” Qin said.
The lockdown has fueled rare protests, with people sometimes banging pots and pans outside their windows to show their displeasure with the strict measures, and many taking to social media to share frustrating interactions with authorities and others personal drama caused by the restrictions.
The public anger comes in a sensitive year for President Xi Jinping, who is set to win an unprecedented third term in office this fall.