Coronavirus Live Updates: In China, Loosened Restrictions Lead to Travel Rush

In China, Labor Day travelers rush to take advantage of loosened restrictions.

When Zeng Yanqi, a 26-year-old Beijing resident, learned this week that travelers returning to the capital would no longer have to quarantine, she pulled up flight options on her phone. Half an hour later, she had purchased a ticket to visit her parents in Sichuan Province.

Friday kicks off Labor Day, a long weekend in China and the biggest extended holiday since the country began loosening up nationwide restrictions first implemented in January.

After months of lockdown, quarantines and fear, people are rushing to take advantage. Moments after Beijing announced on Thursday that it would lift its quarantine requirements, airline ticket bookings shot up 15 times higher than recent levels, according to Qunar, an online travel service provider. The number of tourists who booked trips in April increased by 300 percent over March, according to Xinhua, the state news agency, citing data from Trip.com, a travel agency.

Roughly 70 percent of the country’s tourist attractions have reopened, and many are offering free entry or other promotions, Luo Shugang, China’s minister of culture, said at a news conference on Thursday.

While encouraging tourism as a means of economic revival, officials reminded travelers that life had not yet returned to normal. Tourist attractions would be limited to 30 percent of their usual capacity, Mr. Luo said, and many would require online reservations. Temperature checks would be widespread. “We are still in the middle of the epidemic control period,” he said.

Still, such warnings could not dampen Ms. Zeng’s spirits. Her parents had immediately rearranged their schedules after hearing of her surprise visit, she said in a phone call from Daxing International Airport in Beijing on Thursday. She had not seen them since October. “Even when I was in college, I didn’t go that long without going home,” she said.

South Africa said it would lift a nationwide lockdown on Friday, but continue to implement strict social distancing and face mask rules, as the nation, already under siege from H.I.V., prepares for a new threat from the seasonal flu.

South Africa implemented one of the world’s most stringent lockdowns after recording its first coronavirus-related death in March. The regulations banned jogging and dog-walking, shuttered parks and banned the sale of alcohol and cigarettes.

Even with the eased restrictions, masks and social distancing will be mandatory and an overnight curfew will be implemented. Employees must still work from home, and gyms and restaurants will remain closed. Schools will not reopen until June 1.

The country quickly sprung into action in March over fears that its population, heavily affected by H.IV. and AIDS, would be particularly susceptible to the new coronavirus.

Beginning on Friday, miners will return to work underground — a move crucial to the economy — in an industry already overwhelmed by high rates of H.I.V. and tuberculosis infection. More than 13 percent of the South African population is H.I.V. positive, meaning nearly eight million people have compromised immune systems.

With 5,350 confirmed coronavirus cases and just over 100 deaths, officials say the phased reopening is essential to curbing the pandemic in a country with a vulnerable population and poor health system.

The economic toll of fighting Covid-19 also necessitated a $26.16 billion stimulus plan, with money borrowed from the International Monetary Fund, the African Development Bank and others.

An unfamiliar sight since the end of apartheid, tanks carrying soldiers rolled into neighborhoods to assist police with enforcing the lockdown. As in other nations, officers were accused of heavy handedness, with six people killed by police in the first week, many in communities of color. This is also where testing and screening drives, led by volunteers wearing protective gear, have been focused.

“Community transmission is there, we see cases, but it’s not spreading like that wildfire that we had expected and that’s what’s leading to this funny turn in the epidemic and the shape of our curve,” said Professor Salim Abdool Karim, head of the country’s Covid-19 task force, presenting a plateaued infection rate.

The police in Hong Kong deployed thousands of additional officers on Friday after antigovernment activists in Hong Kong vowed to return to the streets as the city’s coronavirus outbreak has stabilized.

About 3,000 officers in riot gear were deployed on Friday, the Labor Day holiday in the semiautonomous Chinese city, to conduct high-profile patrols, the local news media reported. The police said in a statement on Friday that they would “nimbly deploy manpower to maintain public safety and public order” in response to calls for action that “disregard the government’s laws.”

Protesters, organizing online, called for spontaneous demonstrations on Friday and for a four-day campaign to show support for small businesses that support the pro-democracy movement.

The coronavirus pandemic has helped quiet the antigovernment movement that roiled Hong Kong last year. But the city has recorded no new coronavirus infections for five consecutive days and protesters have recently staged small rallies. Those gatherings were broken up by the police, who cited social distancing rules.

Groups of police officers wearing face masks and holding shields were seen on Friday outside shopping malls in the busy commercial district of Causeway Bay. Across the harbor in the Kowloon area, officers conducted spot checks on residents near a train station.

The Labor Day rallies that are traditionally held on May 1 in Hong Kong were denied permits because of public health risks. One pro-democracy labor group has instead planned to set up dozens of street booths.

After flight attendants and pilots criticized them for not doing more to protect employees, large airlines in the United States and around the world announced this week that they would require their crews to wear masks. Some went even further and said passengers would have to do so, too.

American Airlines and Delta Air Lines said on Thursday that they would start requiring all passengers to wear a face covering in the coming weeks, a policy that will apply to their flight attendants, too. They join Lufthansa Group — which owns its namesake airline, Swiss International Air Lines and Austrian Airlines — as well as JetBlue and Frontier Airlines, all of which made similar announcements this week.

Southwest Airlines said this week that its flight attendants would soon be wearing masks, joining United Airlines, which announced a similar policy late last week. Both airlines said they would “strongly” encourage customers to do the same.

As some states begin to relax or lift stay-at-home orders, lawmakers and unions representing flight attendants and pilots have stepped up calls for industrywide rules on masks to protect flight crews from passengers — and passengers from one another.

Airlines have been slow to require masks in part because they’ve been hard to come by. Early in the pandemic, many companies promised to make masks available for employees who wanted them, but some pilots and flight attendants complained that they were not always available.

States across America are continuing to navigate a high-stakes balancing act, with some preparing to ease virus restrictions and others imposing new ones — all under the watchful eyes of stir-crazy residents eager to return to their favorite stores, restaurants and beaches.

In California, Florida and other coastal states, governors wrestled with squaring constituents’ demands for relief from the spring heat against the potentially lethal consequences of loosening social distancing rules in ways that might make beach blankets and lawn chairs new virus hot spots.

Even when their city was repeatedly overrun by the Taliban and fighting reached their doorsteps, the doctors and nurses in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz kept working. They dressed wounds and saved lives at the main government hospital even as a nearby trauma center was bombed, killing more than 40 people.

Now, about 70 doctors and nurses out of a staff 361 at Kunduz Regional Hospital — the main health facility for several restive provinces in northeastern Afghanistan — are either infected with the coronavirus or in quarantine on suspicion of infection. But there is no choice but to keep the doors open, said Dr. Naeem Mangal, the hospital director. The doctors cannot reject the dozens of war wounded who continue to arrive each day.

“The hospital needs to be quarantined, but what alternative do we have?” said Dr. Mangal. “It has made us so concerned that we are all scared of each other at the hospital because we don’t know who is infected and who isn’t.”

Afghanistan’s feeble health system has been tested by the spread of the pandemic at a time when the war with the Taliban continues to rage nationwide.

Testing remains extremely limited here, but as of Thursday, the country had recorded just over 2,100 cases, with at least 160 among medical workers, and 64 recorded deaths.

Dr. Mangal said his hospital in Kunduz, where 23 of 37 confirmed cases are medical workers, has pleaded with people to only visit the hospital for severe emergencies.

Facing pointed criticism from lawmakers on Thursday, the European Union’s top diplomat denied that the bloc had softened a recent report on disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic, under pressure from China.

The report, released late last week, described Chinese and Russian efforts to spread falsehoods and propaganda about the pandemic. But the language had been toned down amid strenuous objections from China, The New York Times reported, based on interviews, emails and documents.

The European Union’s senior diplomat, Josep Borrell, acknowledged that Chinese officials had objected to the report, but said such complaints “are the daily bread of diplomacy.” He said the revisions had been part of the normal editing process.

“There was no watering down of our findings,” Mr. Borrell said.

Lawmakers appeared skeptical. Thierry Mariani, a French member of the European Parliament, told Mr. Borrell that his team had been “caught with their hand in the cookie jar.”

The report comes at a time when the European Union hopes to win trade concessions from Beijing and restore a rich relationship once the pandemic has passed. German automakers and French farmers, along with other industries, rely heavily on exports to China.

The report was a routine roundup of publicly available information and news reports. The internal report, and a version that was drafted for public release, both dedicated separate sections to state-sponsored disinformation by China and Russia.

In the final version, those sections were folded into the rest of the report, and many examples of Chinese actions were grouped at the bottom, under the heading “Other selected activities.”

Key sentences from earlier versions were omitted, including: “China has continued to run a global disinformation campaign to deflect blame for the outbreak of the pandemic and improve its international image.” Other language was softened.

“Who interfered? Which Chinese official put pressure? At what level? What means of pressure?” asked Hilde Vautmans, a Belgian member of the European Parliament. “I think Europe needs to know that. Otherwise you’re losing all credibility.”

Mr. Borrell declined to answer that question or discuss the revisions that had been made in each draft.

In late January, researchers at BenevolentAI, an artificial intelligence start-up in central London, turned their attention to the coronavirus.

Within two days, using technologies that can scour scientific literature related to the virus, they pinpointed a possible treatment with speed that surprised both the company that makes the drug and many doctors who had spent years exploring its effect on other viruses.

Called baricitinib, the drug was designed to treat rheumatoid arthritis. Though many questions hang over its potential use as a coronavirus treatment, it will soon be tested in an accelerated clinical trial with the United States’ National Institutes of Health. It is also being studied in Canada, Italy and other countries.

The specialists at BenevolentAI are among many A.I. researchers and data scientists around the world who have turned their attention to the coronavirus, hoping they can accelerate efforts to understand how it is spreading, treat people who have it and find a vaccine.

BenevolentAI quickly joined a race to identify drugs that can block the virus from entering the body’s cells. Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, and many others labs are looking into similar treatments.

Over two days, a small team used the company’s tools to plumb millions of scientific documents in search of information related to the virus. The tools relied on one of the newest developments in artificial intelligence — “universal language models” that can teach themselves to understand written and spoken language by analyzing thousands of old books, Wikipedia articles and other digital text.

Through their software, they found that baricitinib might prevent the viral infection itself, blocking the way it enters cells. The company said it had no expectations for making money from the research and had no prior relationship with Eli Lilly, the company that makes baricitinib.

Dr. Dan Skovronsky, chief scientific officer at Eli Lilly, warned that it was still unclear what affect the drug would have on coronavirus patients. Even after the clinical trial, he said, it may not be clear whether the antiviral properties pinpointed by BenevolentAI are as effective as they might seem to be.

Reporting was contributed by Elaine Yu, Vivian Wang, Mujib Mashal, Fahim Abed, Farah Mohamed, Lynsey Chutel, Matt Apuzzo, Niraj Chokshi, Cade Metz, Nina Siegal and Victoria Gomelsky. Research was contributed by Claire Fu.

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