China begins lunar new year celebrations without strict COVID-19 policy

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Jan. 21 (UPI) — Lunar new year festivities are underway in China on Saturday as that country marks its first such celebration without strict COVID-19 policies in three years.

People enjoying new freedoms began leaving for the week-long Spring Festival holiday, ebulliently flocking to train stations and airports in major cities, bound for vacation destinations with friends and family.

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Photos in Beijing show packed train platforms and lineups in airports.

The lunar new year, which is most prominently associated with Chinese culture, begins Sunday and begins a celebration in many Asian countries that can last for up to two weeks.

Saturday marks the final day of 2022’s Year of the Tiger, before entering the Year of the Rabbit Sunday.

China last month ended the strict zero-tolerance COVID-19 policy it has adhered to since the onset of the global pandemic. That included discontinuing use of a tracking app amid widespread protests against the tight regulations. The app flagged people if and when they entered an area officials deemed a hotspot, often leading to a mandatory quarantine and travel restrictions.

Residents are now free to travel across the country this lunar new year, which is observed in several other countries, including Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and South Korea. Roughly 1.5 billion people worldwide will observe it and participate in festivities.

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China’s government predicts its citizens will take 2.1 billion passenger trips over a 40-day period around the holiday, nearly double the amount from last year.

The speed at which China pivoted from its zero-tolerance policies amid a growing number of COVID-19 cases and deaths caused some countries to enact new rules governing Chinese travelers.

Earlier this month, American policy changed and now dictates travelers from mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau produce a negative COVID-19 test before entering the United States.

The rule change came as China reported more than 250 million positive COVID-19 cases in the first three weeks of December.

Japan too has tightened its border restrictions for Chinese tourists, now requiring a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of leaving China and before entering the country.

China’s government is taking a softer tone as it departs from the zero-tolerance policy. The country’s state-run Xinhua news agency published a story seeking to reassure people the country is well-prepared moving forward, claiming it has passed the infection peak and has adequate medical resources as the lunar new year dawns.

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Revelers watch the performances at a Lunar New Year Parade in Chinatown in New York City on Friday. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo