Small businesses suffer as China virus shuts communities

Beiyi SEOW
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Across Beijing's rural outskirts, guesthouses and tourist attractions have been deserted for almost two weeks due to the coronavirus outbreak

Wang Li's guesthouse sits a stone's throw from the Great Wall, an idyllic setting for a weekend getaway. But in these uncertain times of the new coronavirus, Wang and her family are the only occupants.

The 35-year-old woman now spends her days disinfecting Yingfangyuan Farmhouse and its empty restaurant near Beijing, as millions of people across the country stay home, either under government orders or out of caution.

As the virus claims more lives and infects thousands of people every day, it is also taking a toll on the country's small businesses that rely on spending from China's growing middle-class.

"We used to be able to have up to 10 tables of guests a day during this period," she told AFP. "There is no one now."

While she usually earns around 10,000 yuan ($1,400) during the Lunar New Year holiday, her business was closed this year.

"We rely on this for our livelihood. We can only wait for the epidemic to pass," she said, noting that she will face problems if the situation persists for more than two months.

"I don't have other (backup) plans."

- Fewer buyers -

Across Beijing's rural outskirts, guesthouses, restaurants and tourist attractions have been deserted for almost two weeks.

The Great Wall and Ming dynasty tombs remain closed and people are urged to stay home -- with many working remotely even after the Spring Festival break ended.

Many bus and train services have been suspended across the country, and central Hubei province, the epicentre of the outbreak, has effectively been locked down.

Supermarkets are struggling to sell their food as families have enough after stocking up for holiday gatherings that have not been held -- in line with officials' advice.

At the Shijihualian Supermarket in Heishanzhai village, boxes of Lunar New Year goods, including food items such as persimmons, remain stacked and unsold.

"They are bought as gifts, but people have not been visiting their relatives this year," said its shopkeeper surnamed Yang.

"With no relatives to host this year, it will take time for them to deplete their supplies."

With analysts warning that the virus could cut into the country's already slowing economy, China's central bank has urged financial institutions to continue stepping up support for small and micro enterprises.

But this has not stopped business owners from fretting over an uncertain future.

- No outsiders -

Adding to the isolation of rural communities, villages have closed themselves off from "outsiders" in a bid to ensure the new coronavirus, which has claimed more than 900 lives, stays out.

Bright red banners proclaiming the importance of epidemic prevention drape across the entrances of villages, and masked volunteers stand guard at each entry point.

Residents who would have typically returned to work in cities after the Spring Festival break are still in their hometowns as well.

In the Heishanzhai village north of Beijing, there are blockades on roads leading into its residential areas.

"We stopped allowing people in from the second day of the Lunar New Year," said Zhang Xinao, a 25-year-old volunteer manning one of the entrances.

"We also disinfect the entire village every day in the mornings and afternoons," he told AFP, as another volunteer walked around spraying a can of disinfectant.

In the background, announcements blaring over loudspeakers remind residents of the importance of donning masks.

Zhang added that he does not usually work in the village, but has a job with a railway-related business in nearby Changping district.

But his company, like many others across the country, has yet to confirm when regular operations will resume.

- Temples deserted -

The absence of tourists is posing a different problem for some.

Wang Jigang stands guard at the entrance to the Yanshou temple, which he said used to attract up to 1,000 visitors a day during peak periods.

"On the first day of the Lunar New Year, there were still hawkers setting up stalls here. But the controls got more and more serious by the day and eventually we blocked off the area with stone blocks," he said.

This also means devotees, who would bring donations to the temple, are not visiting.

While the temple does not lack resources for now, Wang is looking to local authorities for support in the near future.

"People are understanding," he said of the government's response to the virus.

"But they have paid a heavy price."