They strolled and cycled through their own city like dazed tourists. They hopped onto ferries once again, crossing the Huangpu River, and crowded onto the famed Bund waterfront. They honked car horns and lit fireworks.
As Shanghai eased one of the longest, toughest lockdowns anywhere since the pandemic began, many of its 25 million residents celebrated being free to move around. The reopening on Wednesday came after Shanghai’s two-month siege against Covid had set off public anger over shortages of food and medicine as well as the harsh enforcement of quarantine rules.
For now at least, that anger gave way to relief after the government wound back many restrictions. During the day, people — all wearing masks — basked in the novelty of previously mundane pleasures like meeting friends and relatives, strolling in parks, and driving through streets that had been largely empty since early April. Hairdressers were, as in many cities freed from lockdowns, busy. Subway lines were open but quiet.
“Everyone had these problems at the time and felt a bit confounded about what to do,” said Tang Xianchun, a Shanghai resident. Earlier in the lockdown, she had been irate about dwindling supplies and residents with chronic illnesses being denied entry to hospitals, sometimes with deadly consequences.
“But those problems came to be resolved, and now everyone is feeling good that the restrictions are lifting,” Ms. Tang said in a telephone interview. “I’m more eager to catch up with family and friends, chat and meet face to face. That’s what I missed most.”
Shanghai ordered residents to stay home and businesses to shut from early April to try to stifle the spread of the Omicron variant. City leaders had initially said they could contain the outbreak with limited restrictions. But China’s leader, Xi Jinping, and other top officials ordered tougher measures as infections climbed to more than 20,000 each day.
With daily infections now falling to low double digits, the government has launched an urgent effort to revive factories, companies and supply lines vital to China’s sagging economy. On Tuesday, Shanghai recorded 15 infections.
“The task of speeding up the economic and social recovery is increasingly urgent,” Shanghai city leaders said in a letter to residents. “We will put all our energy into fully restoring regular production and life.”
Yet even as the authorities eased the lockdown, they retained some major restrictions on movement, such as checkpoints for entering housing compounds. And despite the economic and social pain of lockdowns, China’s leaders have insisted on sticking with their strategy of eliminating virtually all Covid cases. That has left many residents and business owners in Shanghai wondering: What does going back to normal mean? How long will it last?
“I feel like that harm from the pandemic measures is worse than the harm of the virus itself. Everyone’s really stir crazy after two months locked up,” Summer Wang, a graduate student in Shanghai, said in an interview. “Now I always want to be ready at any time with about two months of supplies so I can have some sense of security.”
The uncertainty and anxiety about the future could impede Shanghai’s — and China’s — recovery. Officials have been cautiously lifting some restrictions on residents and selected companies since midway through May.
China’s economy slowed sharply in April and May, in large part because of Shanghai’s lockdown. The restrictions have also hurt many shops and small businesses, which are big generators of jobs. Over 10 million students in Chinese universities, many in Shanghai, are about to graduate and enter the job market.
The Shanghai lockdown also set off small-scale protests by residents and dissent that unsettled Communist Party officials, vigilant against any signs of discontent.
Some residents banged pots and pans at night to vent their anger. They shared a mournful six-minute video, “Voices of April,” that chronicled suffering during the lockdown. Some lawyers and academics — sizable groups in this heavily middle-class city — called for rethinking the “zero Covid” strategy that Mr. Xi put in place after the pandemic took off in Wuhan, central China, in early 2020.
“You feel like you’re carrying a really heavy weight on your life,” Vera Liu, an academic in Shanghai, said in an interview. She said that she and her husband had discussed moving back to the United States, where they both received their doctoral degrees.
“All of our parents and relatives are here and they are getting old,” she said. “But after this lockdown, as a parent, I have to seek a better option for my son.”
Despite the easing, hundreds of thousands of Shanghai residents remain locked in their housing compounds because of recent infections in their areas. Under China’s stringent rules, being in the vicinity of a confirmed infection is enough to land someone in a quarantine facility.
People must still undergo regular Covid testing to use public transport or enter many public places. Many company managers and shop owners are uncertain how to restore business to full capacity when Covid policies, including testing rules, still hold back the movement of workers and goods within and beyond the city.
“It felt like running a marathon; you thought you were close to the finish, but then there was another mountain to cross,” Yang Benli, a co-owner of a chain of cafes in Shanghai, said of the darkest days of the lockdown. “Our vegetable and steak suppliers haven’t fully restored deliveries yet, but mainly it’s because of staffing shortages, as Shanghai still has locked down areas.”
The uncertainty also hangs over many companies and multinationals with offices and operations in Shanghai. The city and surrounding Yangtze River delta region are an artery of the Chinese economy, creating a big share of its manufactured goods, high tech, exports and tax revenues.
Huang Changming, a manager of a garment company with offices in Shanghai and a factory outside the city, said getting back to normal production could take two months. “As long as Shanghai gets back to work, other areas will do the same.”
Still, Eric Zheng, the president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, said: “It’s going to take a while for companies to resume ‘normal’ — that’s quote-unquote normal — operations.”
“It’s a gradual process to bring people back and there’s all the logistics bottlenecks,” he said in a telephone interview. “Are your suppliers in a position to resume normal operations? That’s another big question.”
Despite those doubts, the reopening of Shanghai will come as a relief to Mr. Xi, who is set to claim a third five-year term as China’s leader at a Communist Party congress later this year.
Mr. Xi and other Chinese officials maintain that their zero-tolerance strategy has spared the country the millions of deaths that the virus has inflicted in the United States, Europe and other richer countries. China has officially recorded 5,226 deaths from Covid, though the real number is probably higher, because China typically classifies Covid-related deaths more narrowly than many other countries. Shanghai has counted 588 deaths from the recent outbreak.
Yu Zhonghuan, a retired engineer in Shanghai, said he would use his new freedom to press officials to explain how his wife died. Doctors said she had suffered from a lung infection, but he believed that she succumbed to Covid in late April after being infected with the coronavirus while in hospital.
“Even if they ignore me, I want to go and find the coroner’s office to demand an autopsy,” he said by telephone. “I don’t hold out any hopes, I know suing won’t produce results, but I’ll just keep pushing.”
Alexandra Stevenson and Isabelle Qian contributed reporting, and Liu Yi and Li You contributed research.