Shanghai CNN  — 

On a normal weekend, Shanghai’s world-famous Nanjing Road is packed with shoppers and tourists, keen to indulge themselves in China’s thriving financial hub.

But this week, the streets are mostly empty and stores are either closed or deserted due to fear of the deadly coronavirus, which has killed more than 2,000 people across the country.

When a customer does enter a shop, the relieved store clerks rush over to see if they can help – but only after they have taken the newcomer’s temperature.

Yena Lei, a financial industry manager, said that Shanghai is usually quiet around the Lunar New Year holiday, when people take long breaks to be with their families, “but not like this.”

“Now there’s very few people,” she said. “You cannot go outside for anything, to meet with friends or have dinner or lunch. Everything is stopped.”

In recent days, Chinese state media has lauded the success of the country’s authorities in containing the virus.

On Monday, a meeting of top government officials presided over by Premier Li Keqiang declared that a “greater outbreak” had been avoided. State tabloid Global Times ran a series of articles announcing a “slow, steady economic reboot” after several weeks of disruption.

On Tuesday, the number of patients discharged from hospitals exceeded new confirmed cases for the first time, state news agency Xinhua reported.

But the upbeat tone in state media isn’t being reflected on the ground in major cities such as Shanghai, where virus control measures are still having an impact on everyday life.

A man wearing a protective face mask walks along the usually busy Bund waterfront along the Huangpu River overlooking Shanghai's financial district on February 6.

‘Are you running a fever?’

Shanghai has recorded 333 cases of the virus and two people have died.

While those are relatively small numbers for a city of more than 27 million people, it is obvious to anyone visiting Shanghai that this is a city on edge.

Eating out in Shanghai

  • No experience has been as bizarre or depressing as eating out during this “special time,” which is how many locals have referred to life in China amid this outbreak.
  • It took us six phone calls to find a restaurant that was open in Shanghai – a normally bustling metropolis of some 25 million people.
  • When we arrived all but one of three its entrances were locked. That forced everyone through one entrance where a security guard put a thermometer to our head and took our personal information: names, ID or passport numbers, phone numbers, and body temperature.
  • When we finally entered the restaurant, we realized we were the only ones there. The host eagerly seated us, as the kitchen staff curiously looked on. Immediately after giving us menu, the server arrived and provided a sampling of hand sanitizer. He offered two types in case we had a preference.
  • We handled the menu with purified hands and sanitized again after paging through the selections.
  • When other diners arrived they were seated at opposite ends of the restaurant. The server explained their policy was only to serve three tables at a time. This restaurant had about 24 tables.
  • When we finished our meal and asked for the check, the server insisted on bringing us a chocolate heart cake. It looked as though it had been prepared for Valentine’s Day; it was February 16. As we left, the host thanked us repeatedly for coming in and apologized for the inconvenience.
  • “This is a ‘special time’,” he told us. “Please wish China well so we can get through this.”

    At the main train station terminal, guards in white hazmat suits instruct all arrivals to walk in single file past a temperature reader secured to a tripod.

    After passing the checkpoint, visitors have to scan a massive QR code on their phones which brings up an online form. They are then asked, among other things, for their ID number and answer a range of questions: Where are you traveling from? Are you running a fever?

    Those unlucky enough to come from one of the most affected provinces will be put into quarantine at home for 14 days. Hotels in Shanghai are still barring guests from high-risk provinces, such as Guangdong and Hubei, where the epidemic began.

    Hotels are also implementing their own temperature checks, conducted by staff.

    “It’s the slowest I’ve ever seen it,” a hotel manager, who wished to remain anonymous, said of the check in process at his establishment. “But we should get through this ‘special time,’” he added with a smile.

    Shanghai Fashion Week, was supposed to take place from March 26 to April 2, but has been canceled. Shanghai Disneyland has been shuttered since late January over fears of crowds of people rapidly infecting each other.

    Chemical industry worker Feng Ganggang, 23, came to Shanghai from northeastern Shaanxi province over the Lunar New Year holiday. He said he couldn’t believe how few people there were compared to when he came four years ago.

    “Four years ago, it was packed. With so few people, it must be bad for the economy,” he said.

    A man in Shanghai wears a mask amid the novel coronavirus outbreak, under a sign proclaiming "open information, just and equitable."

    Everyday Shanghai

    For Shanghai residents, life is far from normal.

    Many are still only able to access their residential compounds through one entrance, where they are funneled through a makeshift security checkpoint where their health and travel history is registered by a volunteer.

    Financial manager Lei said she went back to work on February 3, but her team of 50 employees has been encouraged to work from home to stem the spread of the virus and take taxis rather than public transport.

    “My company has taken a lot of measures to ensure people’s safety,” she said. “(It’s important) to make people feel comfortable rather than just force them to go back to work.”

    The Chinese government needs people to head to work. Some analysts have said that the coronavirus could cost China’s economy up to 2% of economic growth – or $62 billion.

    Empty streets in Shanghai's Hong Kou district amid ongoing coronavirus prevention measures.

    The economy was already facing headwinds due to the ongoing trade war with the US government, with growth in 2019 the weakest in three decades.

    Small businesses are one of the main drivers of China’s domestic economy, but without help or a reprieve from the disease, the loss of customers and revenue may mean many have only weeks to survive.

    With Shanghai still struggling to get back on its feet, Lei said the Chinese economy could have a rocky year ahead, depending on how the next few months go.

    “If you look at our stock market, it’s still okay,” she said. “But the economic situation, I have to say, it will get worse, not immediately but maybe later … Overall, I think this year will not be the year we had expected.”

    Even resuming normal habits is a struggle. Lei said she stopped going out to yoga after her local gym closed indefinitely. She has also had to cancel her travel plans around the country and abroad.

    Many major Chinese cities are still on lockdown and some countries, such as the US, have banned visits from Chinese citizens.

    “Right now, there is nothing. We have to wait. And then we can see how it’s going,” she said.