Interior of Wuyue International Plaza in Changzhou on Sept. 20, 2020. [Credit: Theresa Boersma]
(CHANGZHOU, China) — It’s lunchtime on a recent September Sunday at Wuyue International Plaza, an indoor shopping mall in the heart of downtown Changzhou. The mall bubbles with people chatting and milling about. Six months ago it was a different scene. In response to the coronavirus outbreak, the city was enforcing a strict trifecta of masks, health codes, and temperature checks at public spaces like the plaza.
As China’s COVID-19 case numbers came down over the past few months, the country loosened restrictions until public life in the cities began to resemble something that would feel shocking in countries still grappling with the pandemic: normal life.
While restaurant workers and a few customers in Wuyue Plaza still wear masks, many people don’t. Mask-wearing is required on Changzhou’s public buses and subway, but for those who arrive at the mall via car or e-bike, masks are now optional.
For those that do arrive masked, often the face coverings are quickly removed and stuffed into pockets or bags when smartphones are pulled out for the first selfie of the day.
Food delivery workers, shouldering large insulated packs, weave around strolling families and electric trains filled with children and zip-up escalators to restaurants on the mall’s fourth and fifth floors to load up on food orders. Once hailed as grassroots heroes of the COVID-19 outbreak, the delivery workers have recently graced headlines again for the breakneck pace at which delivery apps have calculated their routes — if they get stuck in traffic five minutes too long, they risk a pay cut.
The restaurants are alive with customers. The more popular establishments arrange seats beside their entrances for customers waiting for a turn to eat. These arrangements do not factor in social distancing.
To help the stores and restaurants weather COVID-19 lockdowns in February, Wuyue Plaza offered tenants cuts on rent. Many weathered the crisis. New shops popped up quickly in the spaces left behind by those that didn’t. The cheery blue Angora Rabbit Experience Shop, tucked between colorful walls boasting of future stores, draws gawkers with its live fluffy bunnies perched in shopping carts. Part petting zoo, part café, patrons can pay to dine on cake and tea with a rabbit companion or dress it up.
The rabbits sprawl in their individual carts, clothed yet unruffled.