- Associated Press
Monday, February 1, 2021

WUHAN, China (AP) - Vibrant red lanterns line an alley in Wuhan, China, but customers only trickle in. Around the corner, Gong Linhua recalled earlier years when her store was packed and the street outside was brimming with snack carts.

“This is the first time in 20 years of business that I’ve been in this situation,” said the seller of Lunar New Year decorations. At 60, she is contemplating retirement if the economy doesn’t pick up.

Even in China, where COVID-19 is largely under control and economic growth accelerated to 6.5% in the last three months of 2020, the recovery is uneven and fresh outbreaks are dampening business for some.

The winter has brought China’s largest resurgence to date with more than 2,000 new cases and two deaths in January. The numbers are small compared to most other countries, but enough for worried officials to curb travel and activities for Lunar New Year, one of the biggest holidays of the year.

That’s a blow for airlines, trains, hotels and restaurants and a reversal from the last major holiday in October, when tourism surged back. Near the bottom of the food chain are the shops that stocked up on ornaments for the Year of the Ox.

With about two weeks to go until New Year’s Day on Feb. 12, Wang Cuilan remained optimistic, even though sales have been about half a normal year so far.

She and her husband have operated a shop on the alley near Gong‘s shop for about 20 years. Business is down for hotels and entertainment venues, their big-ticket customers, so orders for decorations are down, too, she said.

This year is worse for sales than last. Wuhan, the city that bore the brunt of the pandemic in China, was locked down just two days before the Lunar New Year in 2020. By then, most Year of the Rat items had already been sold.

But a few customers were coming in last week, after a brief virus scare in Wuhan kept people at home earlier this month.

“If the epidemic situation remains stable, and if there’s good weather, I believe they will all be sold out, within the last 10 or more days,” Wang said.

Business wasn’t the only thing on her mind. The Lunar New Year is when families reunite. For many migrant workers, who leave their hometowns for better-paying jobs, it is their one trip back every year.

Wang wondered if her 26-year-old daughter, who works in neighboring Hunan province, will miss New Year’s at home for the second year in a row.

The government hasn’t banned holiday travel but is strongly discouraging it. Many cities are requiring multiple negative COVID test results for people from outside, both before and after their arrival.

“She wants to come back,” Wang said. “She will return if the government doesn’t roll out stricter measures.”

Trips by car, plane and train appear to be down about 75% in the first three days of the holiday travel period, which began Thursday, according to Transport Ministry and state media reports. The ministry has predicted that travel will fall 40% during the 40-day period compared to 2019.

Economic forecasters say the overall impact may be limited as factories, shops and farms may keep operating instead of shutting down for a week or more, as they typically do for the holiday.

As dusk fell in Wuhan, the Lunar New Year vendors began bringing in their wares, plucking gigantic lanterns one by one off outdoor racks and carting in boxes of stuffed toy oxen. Wang’s son and nephew helped pack up her store.

Any ox-themed items that go unsold will likely be written off and discarded. In the Chinese zodiac, an animal comes up only once every 12 years.


Associated Press writer Joe McDonald in Beijing contributed to this report.

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