It was supposed to be a whirlwind tour of China for Jiang Lanyi’s boyfriend: classical gardens in Suzhou, modern art in Shanghai and ice skating in central Beijing.
Instead, the 24-year-old and her Ukrainian partner have spent more than two weeks holed up in her parents’ house in northeast Liaoning Province to avoid COVID-19.
Couples around China settled for a quiet Valentine’s Day this year, with COVID-19 intruding as an unwelcome third-wheel in romantic celebrations.
The COVID-19 outbreak in China has triggered transport restrictions, restaurant shutdowns and the closure of major tourist sites. Businesses around the country, from florists to concert halls, closed shop and axed events, leaving couples with no choice but to spend the night in.
For Jiang and her boyfriend, that meant a lot of mahjong.
“We play two to three hours every day,” said Jiang, who met her partner, a tech entrepreneur, while studying in London. “Having started learning from zero, he’s now very skilled.”
In Beijing, Valentine’s Day specials aimed at couples — from a My Heart Will Go On concert to a 1,688 yuan (US$242) lobster dinner for two — were canceled.
Valentine’s Day this year “won’t be that different from daily life under quarantine,” said Tyra Li, who lives in Beijing with her boyfriend of nearly three years.
Since the Lunar New Year holiday, aside from a trip to see family, the couple has only left the house to buy groceries — they do not even order food delivery for fear of infection, she said.
“There definitely won’t be any flowers,” the 33-year-old said. “I don’t dare to receive them and he doesn’t dare to buy them.”
The risk of infection, which has left most lovers housebound, has battered Valentine’s Day sales for businesses hoping to cash in on love.
Flower shop Xian Hua Ge in Beijing said that sales plunged by up to 70 percent from last year — partly because many have not returned to the city to work.
The “return rate” of workers for China’s four Tier-1 cities was only 19.4 percent as of Monday, far below the 66.7 percent of last year, Nomura China economist Lu Ting (陸挺) said in a report on Tuesday.
A worker at Romanti Fresh Flowers said that sales have dropped up to 50 percent, in part because customers are fearful of virus transmission via delivery staff, while another shop said that they had “no stock.”
China’s wedding industry has also taken a hit, with Beijing earlier this month urging couples to delay their nuptials.
Zhu He, 25, who last month downsized her wedding due to virus fears, said that she and her fiance had originally planned to pick up their marriage license on Valentine’s Day.
That has been delayed due to the COVID-19 outbreak, said Zhu, who lives in southern Guangzhou.
“We had planned to go together [with my parents],” she said. “Now, they won’t come, even though we all live in Guangzhou.”
“Neither of them can drive and I don’t really trust public transport,” Zhu said, worried about the risk of infection.
The outbreak has also complicated romantic trysts, with many cities closing off neighborhoods to outside visitors in a bid to contain COVID-19.
Miao Jing, a university student in northern Tianjin, said that her girlfriend had to sneak into her hotel through the parking garage for a three-hour rendezvous earlier this month.
The trip was supposed to last three days, said the 23-year-old, who took a five-hour train to northern Zhangjiakou to see her partner, but on the second day, the district where Miao was staying reported a confirmed case of the virus.
“She was really worried,” Miao said. “In the end, I only saw her on the first day.”
For Shaw Wan, 28, who works on short documentaries in Beijing, the epidemic has separated her and her boyfriend — who is in Taiwan — indefinitely.
“I don’t really want him to return either — what if he gets infected on the way back?” she said.
However, there are some bright sides to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Beijing’s Li said that staying cooped up at home has meant more time with her boyfriend — in the past, their busy schedules meant that they only saw each other after 10pm on weekdays.
For Miao and her girlfriend, who are in a long-distance relationship, volunteering in outbreak relief work has brought them closer together.
The two students help residents and communities in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, with remote tasks such as calling to arrange vehicle transport.
“There is a feeling of working together,” she said. “Even if we cannot be together physically, in some sense we are.”
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