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SmartShanghai's Big Coronavirus Outbreak FAQ

Doctors, lawyers, the Shanghai Foreign Affairs Office hotline and SmSh staff answer 20 common questions about life during the outbreak.
Feb 16, 2020 | 16:10 Sun

These aren't normal times. A lot of unprecedented things are happening in Shanghai, and with such speed that they often kick up a lot more questions than answers. Why did practically every restaurant in Jing'an close but not on The Bund? Do these temperature guns actually work? Am I under quarantine or not?

We don't know! We write about pasta for a living! We didn't think "nationwide virus epidemic" was a topic we'd have to prep for. But we have spoken to several doctors, a lawyer, a neighborhood committee, the Shanghai Municipal Health Committee, and two information hotlines run by the city to find answers to more than 20 questions we've heard going around recently. Here then, the mid-February 2020 FAQ for life in Shanghai.


Do I really need an N95 mask or is a paper mask enough? What about a surgical mask?

Both types of masks - N95 respirators and surgical masks - are helpful to certain extents. Surgical masks do not have a tight seal, and were primarily designed to keep the wearer's own respiratory droplets away from the "surgical field" / other people. That said, they do keep some outside respiratory droplets from entering your mouth or nose, and when worn properly they should keep you from touching your own mouth or nose.

However, their effectiveness depends partly on just how likely it is for patients with no symptoms or mild disease to transmit the disease through respiratory secretions. Since this is not clear currently, it is prudent to wear a surgical mask in public but otherwise low-risk settings. Wherever the risk is very high (hospital settings, around people with suspected disease), an N95 respirator (which has a tight seal) is needed. In between, I would recommend using what is available.

Whatever mask you choose, keep in mind that many experts warn against having a false sense of security by wearing them. It is important to wear them securely and not to touch your face/mask area with unclean hands. It is even more important to wash your hands frequently - before touching your face or eating, for 20 seconds with soap and water or with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

— Dr. Warren Ho, Parkway Health

How long do different masks last?

A surgical mask needs to be changed every 4-6 hours or if it gets damp or dirty. So a surgical mask needs to be changed at least 2-3 times per day and disposed of correctly. For other masks like a N95 mask or a N100 mask, it is of paramount importance to follow the manufacturer's recommendation. (See 3M's coronavirus and mask page here.)

— Dr. Frank Morris-Davies, SinoUnited Health

Let’s be real. I’m not sick. Is wearing a mask really going to do anything or is it just so other, more sensitive people don't freak out?

Currently in Shanghai, the sensible (and law-abiding) thing to do is to wear a mask in public areas.

— Dr. Warren Ho, Parkway Health

I’m still going out for walks with dog, or to take out the trash, or just to see what’s happening. Do I need to disinfect my clothing/shoes/hair when I come back? Should I be wearing one of those disposable plastic raincoat things?

When you come back from outside or from work it is important to follow the following recommendations: Wash your hands thoroughly at least 2-3 times; remove your mask making sure you do not touch the front of the mask; throw away the mask immediately; change your clothes; wash your hands again.

Worn clothes can be hung in the balcony. I do not think a virus will last a long time on clothes. How long a respiratory virus survives depends on many factors, for example: what surface the virus is on, whether it is exposed to sunlight, differences in temperature and humidity, and exposure to cleaning products.

Under most circumstances, the amount of infectious virus on any contaminated surfaces is likely to have decreased a lot within 24 hours. On your hands, the virus survives 5-15 minutes. There is no need to wear raincoats or other protective gear.

— Dr. Frank Morris-Davies, SinoUnited Health

Should I be disinfecting my apartment with 75% alcohol or bleach or something?

You do not need to disinfect your apartment with 75% alcohol if you do not have close contact with a coronavirus patient. The appropriate concentration of bleach can kill the coronavirus but inappropriate use can cause damage such as irritation to your respiratory tract or your skin.

— Dr. Crystal Chen, Shanghai United Family Hospital

Shanghai has less than 400 cases and only one death and that was an 88-year-old man. Is it really so dangerous?

That is a good question because it highlights that the mortality rate outside Hubei has not been nearly as high as within Hubei (although the serious case rate is still significant). One possibility is that the actual infection numbers in Hubei are much higher. If that were the case, even a disease with a low rate of mortality has overwhelmed an entire province (Hubei) within months because it has infected so many people. And if so, other places have the potential to look just as serious as Hubei.

So the short answer is that yes, this is a dangerous disease. If nothing had been done to curtail it, it is likely that at this point that Hubei would be even more overwhelmed, Shanghai would look like Wuhan, and other countries with weaker health systems would be affected. From our vantage point today, COVID-19 seems like a highly transmissible disease with a significant serious case rate. The public health measures in China - travel restrictions, quarantines, hygiene requirements, etc. - have seemed to slow down the rate of transmission, buying time and protecting everyone, especially the vulnerable among us.

— Dr. Warren Ho, Parkway Health

Do I automatically get free rent for my apartment for this period? What about my business?

No, unless the lease agreement says otherwise.

After the execution of a lease agreement, the landlord will be obligated to provide a habitable premise as agreed and the lessee is obligated to pay the rent according to the lease agreement. If one party is prevented from performing its obligation by a force majeure event, the liability for its default shall be released, for example, if the lease agreement says that the lessee must pay the penalty for late payment, but the lessee just couldn’t pay on time as he or her is under quarantine and he or she has no access to the bank account, then the late payment penalty shall be released.

Generally, the obligation to make the rental payment is not affected by the epidemic as the banks and the internet are mostly available for lessees. Therefore, it is generally impossible for the lessee to use “force majeure event” as a defense to get free rent.

The only way that the lessee can get some free rent or deduction of the rent is to negotiate with the landlord if the lease is materially affected by the epidemic. It’s possible, but very rare, that a people’s court may quote the legal theory of “fairness” to rule a change of the lease agreement for those whose business is materially affected due to a force majeure event.

However, if the purpose of the lease agreement is frustrated, such as running a restaurant or the apartment is in a place such as Wuhan that the lessee cannot go back to use due to the epidemic, the lessee may terminate the lease agreement without being held for any liabilities for such termination.

— Steve Li, Sinopar Law Firm

My boss wants us to work from the office but I’m not comfortable with that. What can I do? Am I legally obliged to work in the office?

You cannot refuse on any legal ground, unless you are under quarantine or medical treatment, for example.

An employee who refuses to go back to work without any legal ground might be terminated for violation of company policies. A healthy and unrestricted employee who refuses to go back to work upon work resumption without just cause may be terminated based on Article 39 of Labor Contract Law. Section 2 of the Opinion on Supporting the Work Resumption for Companies and Stabilizing the Labor Relationships During the Period for Protection and Control of Pneumonia from the Novel Coronavirus Infection issued on 7 February by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security (人社部发〔2020〕8号) , implicitly grants employers the power to "handle it in accordance with laws" for employees who refuse to go back to work without just cause.

— Steve Li, Sinopar Law Firm

I feel sick and am worried about my symptoms. What do I do?

Don't rush to the hospital just yet. Instead, if you have a fever, coughing, headache, diarrhea or are extremely sluggish, you should call the city's coronavirus medical hotline (3367 2888 or 3368 2885, translation service available). They will assess your symptoms over the phone and help you decide whether going to a fever clinic is necessary.

— Shanghai Foreign Affairs Office 12345 hotline

What happens if they measure my temperature and it reads 38? Will I be forced into quarantine?

If your temperature is recorded at more than 37.3 degrees, at either the entrance to your apartment block or at a public place, your condition gets reported to the Community Sub-district Office (街道办事处), which is one step up from the neighborhood committee, and the the local branch of the Shanghai Municipal Health Commission.

There is no automatic quarantine if you register a fever. Instead, you may be taken for a general coronavirus screening, but not to a high-risk facility. You’ll only be quarantined in hospital if you then test positive. Exceptions are made at airports, train stations and ferry stations, where testing positive for a fever becomes a more serious thing.

— Shanghai Municipal Health Committee

I’m not in China right now. If I come back, will I be quarantined for 14 days?

Short answer: No. Long answer: Probably not.

A forced quarantine is for anyone who returns from or passes through a "high risk area" (重点区域), which in Shanghai means Hubei, Jiangsu and Guangdong province, and some cities in Zhejiang province such as Wenzhou, Ningbo and Taizhou. No foreign country has been specified as a "high risk area" to date. (However, the official list of what constitutes a high-risk area has not been made public in Shanghai, so there is considerable gray area in the definition.)

However, there are exceptions. When you return to your apartment, your neighborhood committee is likely to ask you to do a 14-day "voluntary" quarantine. Your work may as well. Technically, these are not based on law (yet) according to a police officer we spoke to, but maybe don't be a jerk about it during a moment of heightened tensions.

The other exception is if your plane was found to have an infected passenger. In that case, you will not be allowed to quarantine at home, and will instead be brought to a "designated quarantine center" (not a hospital) for 14 days, according to the city's 12345 hotline. That’s not optional.

— SmartShanghai

I’ve heard some residential compounds are only allowing people out three times per week, to buy groceries. Is that true? Will it happen to my building / compound?

Yes, this is true, according to a Shanghai-based foreign diplomat and a source whose family is currently restricted from exiting. Whether or not your apartment will be subjected to the same restrictions is up to your neighborhood committee, who have legal jurisdiction over apartments and homes in China, according to the 12345 hotline.

— Shanghai Foreign Affairs Office 12345 hotline

I’ve had my temperature taken 50 times this week. Half the time it comes up as 34, 31, even as low as 28. Do these temperature guns work?

Here's one perspective.

Where can I see an English version of the city’s support for enterprises?

On 10 February, the Shanghai Municipal Commission of Commerce published the English translation of its 28 policy measures meant to "support the steady and healthy operation of enterprises" and their ability to "navigate through this epidemic." These include rent reduction in some cases, delays on tax filing and incentives. See the original document here.

— Shanghai Foreign Affairs Office 12345 hotline

There are so many rumors going around, from the apartment fire caused by alcohol disinfectant to a 1 May start date for schools. How do I keep track?

Chinese sites are better for this than the big western media sites, so if you can navigate them, try the China United Internet Anti-Rumor Platform or Baidu's own Anti-Rumor Platform. Otherwise, the AFP runs an English-language Fact-Check service that covers a good amount of China material.

— SmartShanghai

I’m not in Shanghai right now. What’s it like?

You know how empty it feels during Chinese New Year? It's kind of like that, but with a lot more masks and temperature guns.

Honestly, it's pretty quiet. People are trying to get on with their lives as best they can, cooped up indoors. There aren't scuffles for supplies at the supermarkets or fights for masks at the pharmacies. Some neighborhood committees are more strict about residents leaving or visitors coming in than others, but overall... yeah. Boredom seems to be what's hitting people the worst.

Quiet doesn't mean okay, though. There's definite anxiety bubbling under the surface. Some people aren't able to work from home, others aren't sure if they're getting a paycheck this month. Some people's rental contracts are expiring around this time, and it's not totally clear what's going to happen to them. And needless to say, businesses are suffering. No one really knows when it'll be business back to normal, but most owners are saying it'll take them months to recover.

It's quiet. And a bit uneasy.

— SmartShanghai

I don’t have masks or hand sanitizer. Where can I buy them? How do I get masks?

This is a difficult question to answer. As of the time of writing, masks and hand sanitizers were effectively sold out, and many businesses were acquiring them through grey market channels. To give you an idea of demand, mask sales in Shanghai jumped from roughly 10,000 to three million per day during the Lunar New Year holiday season. The government stepped in to provide a limited amount of masks to households who registered but the first round of registration and allocation ended on February 11. The second round has yet to be announced.

— SmartShanghai

Why are some restaurants open and some closed?

Restaurants have different types licenses based on various factors, including the size of the dining room (classed as either small, medium or large), and whether or not they are in a shopping mall. They are also administered by different districts, which may have varying enforcement standards.

In Jing’an and Xuhui, for example, almost all small and medium-sized restaurants have been closed, while a few larger ones have been allowed to remain open. The theory behind this, according to restaurant managers we have talked to, is that they are able to provide a bigger distance between tables (one meter). Even then, the district FDA have closed many large restaurants as well, after making case-by-case assessments.

Restaurants in shopping malls or retail developments with shopping mall licenses have been allowed to remain open. To date, some small restaurants are still able to do delivery and take-out, under the theory that the production is not the problem; the gathering of large groups is.

Finally, some owners are choosing to stay closed because they don't have the staff or they don't want to risk their business, in the unlikely event that an infected person came to eat or drink, and word spread in Shanghai that Restaurant X is contaminated.

— SmartShanghai

When will this be over?

The short answer is no one knows. Predictions have come and gone, and the WHO has warned against making them too soon. "I think it's way too early to predict the beginning, the middle or the end of this epidemic right now," Michael Ryan, head of WHO's health emergencies program told reporters on 12 February.

— SmartShanghai

Should I just say F- this and go wait this out in Bangkok / Japan / Europe?

Up to you! If you can afford to sit this one out somewhere else in the world, why not? You're probably not going to get much done sitting at home here.

But there are a couple of concerns people are voicing about the "GTFO" method of coronavirus prevention. The most obvious is that you might get stranded overseas as your temporary home bans flights to China. There aren't many options left in Asia that haven't banned travel or put restrictions on travelers coming from China, whether from a hotspot or not. Another concern is that the country you arrive in might decide you're worth quarantining. Yet another is that upon returning, your neighborhood committee might decide that you're worth quarantining again. These aren't facts, they're just concerns.

Many of us are riding it out. Homeslice still delivers.

— SmartShanghai

How can I donate to a charity that is helping medical workers in Hubei?

There are two major government-affiliated charities that have collected billions of rmb in donations since the outbreak began.

The Hubei Charity Federation has raised the most money so far, with the total received near 4.5 billion rmb at the time of writing. The nonprofit has said that the targeted relief has and will be allocated to designated recipients in Wuhan in less than three days after money is donated. Every single donation is traceable online, and covers the whole province, not just Wuhan. To donate, click the orange button that says 我要捐款 choose your amount (20, 50, 100, Other), and put in a name in the 捐赠人/企业 field. Choose WeChat or Alipay, click the big orange button at the bottom (下一步) and it will bring you to a page with a QR code. Scan with your phone and you’re done.

Alternatively, or additionally, there is the Wuhan Charity Federation, which also takes WeChat and Alipay and has a very similar interface as the one described above. To date, the WCF has raised 3.6 billion rmb from more than seven million donations, and disbursed 3.25 billion rmb of that total.

— SmartShanghai

Is it safe to shop at wet markets?

The dominant theory is that the coronavirus outbreak started at a Wuhan wet market that dealt in live animals, and sold ah, "unorthodox" cuts of meat.

However, wet markets and supermarkets get their produce from the same wholesale markets, and have been subject to the same hygiene standards and restrictions as other outlets. Plus, there are fewer people in them now, which means the chance of contamination is lower. Just remember to protect yourself while you're out shopping, and thoroughly wash and cook your produce.

According to Dr. Robert Kohlbacher at Parkway Health, "avoid anywhere that sells live animals, but if it's selling vegetables or your usual kinds of meat like any other grocery store, it's no more or less safe to shop there."

— SmartShanghai


Editorial Policy: At, all of our editorial content is conceived of by our team who live in and critique this city, for our readers who do the same. We don't accept payment for content, unless clearly labelled. Read our full editorial policy here.