Province at center of China virus lets some companies reopen

BEIJING (AP) — The province at the center of China’s virus outbreak is allowing factories and some other businesses to reopen in a show of confidence that Beijing is gaining control over the disease that devastated its economy.

The country’s communist leaders are moving to revive business after the most sweeping anti-disease controls ever imposed shut down manufacturing, travel and other industries in late January, sending shock waves through the global economy.

On Tuesday, President Xi Jinping visited Wuhan, the city where the coronavirus emerged in December, signaling China’s crisis might be passing even as the United States and European governments tighten anti-disease controls.

Manufacturers, food processors and other businesses in Wuhan that are essential to the national economy or providing daily necessities can resume operation, the provincial government announced Wednesday.

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The changes are meant to “accelerate establishment of economic and social operation order, compatible with the epidemic prevention,” said a government statement. It said companies that reopen are required to make “epidemic control” plans, inspect employees for signs of disease and keep workplaces disinfected.

Controls have been eased in other areas of China that are considered at low disease risk, but travel and other curbs still are in place. Automakers and other industries aren’t expected to return to normal production until at least mid-April due to disruption to supplies of components.

A foreign ministry spokesman expressed confidence the impact on China’s economy is “temporary and limited” and rejected suggestions companies should move operations out of the country or find foreign suppliers of components and raw materials.

The long-term sound fundamentals and “factors and conditions that support the high-quality development of the Chinese economy have not changed,” said the spokesman, Geng Shuang.

His comments suggest official unease over suggestions that industries may want to further diversify their manufacturing to minimize risks.

“With the recent progress China has made in domestic epidemic prevention and control, key industries including foreign-funded enterprises and leading enterprises have resumed work,” Geng said. “It is neither realistic nor wise to artificially cut off the global supply chain, nor even tout ‘transfer’ and ‘decoupling’ of the supply chain.”

Most access to Wuhan, a city of 11 million people that is the manufacturing hub of central China, was suspended on Jan. 23 in a dramatic effort to contain the outbreak. Residents were ordered to stay in their homes.

Restrictions spread to cities with a total of 60 million people. The Lunar New Year holiday was extended to keep factories and offices closed. Other cities followed suit, as the government canceled group tours and closed shopping malls, restaurants and cinemas.

That jolted global auto, smartphone and other brands that look to China as a manufacturing center and a major market.

In high-risk areas of Hubei province outside Wuhan, businesses that supply food and daily necessities, freight handling and some other services will be allowed to resume, the statement said. It did not say when restrictions on other industries might end.

Even in low-risk areas, businesses such as cinemas, hair salons and karaoke bars “will not resume until the epidemic situation is resolved,” the statement said.

Wuhan and nearby areas of Hubei are home to factories for global automakers and suppliers of components for electronics, smartphones and other industries. The province accounts for about 6% of China’s auto production.

Groupe Renault, one of a number of global auto brands that operate factories in Wuhan with Chinese partners, said it tentatively plans to restart production on March 20 but was awaiting a final government decision.

In mainland China, where the virus first exploded, more than 80,000 people have been diagnosed and nearly 60,000 have recovered.

For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. Most people recover in about two weeks, though those with more severe illness may take up to six weeks to recover.

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