WUHAN, CHINA - The lockdown that served as a model for countries battling the coronavirus around the world is set to end after 11 weeks: Chinese authorities are moving to allow residents of Wuhan to once again travel in and out of the sprawling city where the pandemic began.
Just after midnight Wednesday, the city's 11 million residents will be permitted to leave without special authorization as long as a mandatory smartphone application powered by a mix of data-tracking and government surveillance shows they are healthy and have not been in recent contact with anyone confirmed to have the virus.
Restrictions in the city where most of China's more than 82,000 virus cases and over 3,300 deaths were reported have been gradually relaxed in recent weeks as the number of new cases steadily declined. The latest government figures reported Tuesday listed no new cases.
While there are questions about the veracity of China's count, the unprecedented lockdown of Wuhan and its surrounding province of Hubei have been successful enough that countries around the world adopted similar measures.
During the 76-day lockdown, Wuhan residents had been allowed out of their homes only to buy food or attend to other tasks deemed absolutely necessary. Some were allowed to leave the city, but only if they had paperwork showing they were not a health risk and a letter attesting to where they were going and why. Even then, authorities could turn them back on a technicality such as missing a stamp, preventing thousands from returning to their jobs outside the city.
Residents of other parts of Hubei were allowed to leave the province starting about three weeks ago, as long as they could provide a clean bill of health.
Prevention measures such as wearing masks, temperature checks and limiting access to residential communities will remain in place in Wuhan, which is the capital of Hubei.
In an editorial, the ruling Communist Party's flagship People's Daily warned against celebrating too soon.
"This day that people have long been looking forward to and it is right to be excited. However, this day does not mark the final victory," the paper said. "At this moment, we still need to remind ourselves that as Wuhan is unblocked, we can be pleased, but we must not relax."
In anticipation of the lockdown's lifting, SWAT teams and staff in white hazmat suits patrolled outside the city's Hankou railway station, while guards attended a security briefing under the marble arches of its entrance.
Tickets for trains out of Wuhan to cities across China already were advertised on electronic billboards, with the first train leaving for Beijing at 6:25 a.m. A line designated for passengers headed to the capital already was roped off, while loudspeakers blared announcements about pandemic control measures, such as keeping safe distances and wearing masks.
Wuhan is a major center for heavy industry, particularly autos, and while many major plants have restarted production, the small and medium-sized businesses that provide the most employment are still hurting from both a lack of workers and demand. Measures are being instituted to get them back on their feet, including 20 billion yuan ($2.8 billion) in preferential loans, according to the city government.
China blocked people from leaving or entering Wuhan starting Jan. 23 in a surprise middle-of-the-night announcement and expanded the lockdown to most of the province in succeeding days. Train service and flights were canceled and checkpoints were set up on roads into the central province.
The drastic steps came as the coronavirus began spreading to the rest of China and overseas during the Lunar New Year holiday in late January, when many Chinese travel.
The exact source of the virus remains under investigation, though it is thought to be linked to an outdoor food market in the city.
In preparation for the end of the lockdown, Party Secretary Wang Zhonglin, the city's highest-ranking official, inspected the city's airport and train stations Monday to ensure they were ready. The city must "enforce prevention while opening up, maintain safety and orderliness and the assurance of stability," Wang said.
Mission one: to make sure the epidemic doesn't resurge, he said.