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An American in Shanghai: Under coronavirus threat, city of 24 million grinds to a halt

It is a Sunday afternoon in February in Shanghai.

The sun warms the sidewalks and pollution is relatively low, a rare combination. Any other Sunday the streets would be bustling with people – young girls sipping milk tea while window shopping, friends enjoying brunch on a restaurant terrace and old men playing xiangqi (Chinese chess) in the park. But this Sunday the city of 24 million feels empty.
The coronavirus has turned what was once a hub for commerce into a ghost town – at least temporarily. Shanghai is several hundred miles east of Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus, but the effect on the economy and daily life is undeniable. In Shanghai, residents are afraid to leave their homes. Movie theaters, gyms, schools and libraries have all closed their doors. Many restaurants, bars, clothing stores and nail salons are shuttered. Even the public parks are roped off, leaving a lone security guard to turn people away.
The onset of the coronavirus coincided with the Chinese New Year holiday when the majority of Shanghai’s residents visit their hometowns. After returning to Shanghai, they had to register with the government and wait out the 14-day incubation period before returning to work. Shanghai is usually quiet during this holiday, but gets busy right afterward. This has not happened yet and many are hunkered down in their hometowns waiting for good reports.
Two weeks of quarantine combined with a lack of customers has devastated some businesses. Stores that were struggling before the coronavirus have folded — unable to pay overhead. On the street one can see that some of the “mom and pop” shops have cleaned out their inventory and hung a “For Rent” sign on the door. Chinese purchase goods online through Taobao, the Amazon of China, but in Shanghai delivery drivers are not allowed to deliver inside “sealed” residential compounds so packages are dropped off at the entrance gates.
In Shanghai, restaurants and cafes have fared better because food delivery is a well-established service. Some restaurants are beginning to allow customers to dine in, but there are few takers because of fear of contracting the virus. One alternative to dining out is “dining in” courtesy of third-party services such as Eleme, which is kind of a Uber-type food delivery service using electric scooters. Restaurant owner Xiao Hang runs a small café on ChangLe Street which she opened last September. Like everyone, she wears a surgical mask, but still you can tell she’s smiling. “There are definitely fewer customers these past few weeks but I’m optimistic about the future,” said Hang. “Things will bounce back.” Mrs. Zhang sells eggs and tofu at a local market. “We’re doing just fine,” she says. “More people are cooking at home these days, so we usually sell out.” Some businesses have adapted. A local fitness studio is staying relevant by live-streaming workout classes. Schools have moved classes online, a stroke of luck for many students.
But life in the metropolis is gradually starting to improve. Once-empty metro cars are filling again. Companies are slowly allowing employees return to the office but those who can work from home are doing so. The economy in Shanghai will return. The Chinese are a patient people.

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Adam Matteson has taught English for seven years in Shanghai where he lives with his wife, Yumeng. A West Henderson High School and Appalachian State University, he holds a master’s degree in economics from Jiao Tong University in Shanghai. He is the son of Ann and Matt Matteson.