China’s coronavirus back-to-work lessons: Masks and vigilance

Alexandra Stevenson and Cao Li, The New York Times

Posted at May 13 2020 08:34 AM | Updated as of May 13 2020 08:36 AM

China’s coronavirus back-to-work lessons: Masks and vigilance 1
One person per square in an elevator at the headquarters of, a major e-commerce company in Beijing, on May 11, 2020. Three months after the authorities virtually shut down the country to stop the coronavirus outbreak, its workers have returned to their jobs with the aim of restarting the country’s vast growth machine without igniting another outbreak. Giulia Marchi, The New York Times

BMW workers take their own temperature three times a day and submit the results via an internal chat app. Foxconn, the electronics giant, tells employees to wash their hands before and after handling documents. A ride-share driver wipes down his car daily and sends video proof to headquarters.

The world needs rules and guidelines for the post-coronavirus workplace, and China is the first laboratory.

Three months after authorities virtually shut down the country to stop the outbreak, its workers have returned to their jobs with the aim of restarting the country’s vast growth machine without igniting another outbreak. If Chinese factories and offices can successfully restart without major infections, they could serve as a model for President Donald Trump and other leaders who want to get their economies back on track.

Many of the new workplace rules are obvious: Use disinfectants and masks and keep your distance from colleagues. But some call for tracking and nudging employees in ways that workers in other countries may find unacceptable, including use of government-endorsed health tracking apps. At the same time, local authorities have set up a confusing patchwork of rules that differ from city to city and have tripped up businesses.

Everyone agrees on one thing: There is no going back to life before the pandemic.

“Life will not become like it was before,” said Johann Wieland, chief executive officer of BMW’s joint venture in China, which employs 20,500 people. “This is what we have to learn.”

China’s coronavirus back-to-work lessons: Masks and vigilance 2
Shoppers’ temperatures, and the QR codes on their apps, are checked at a Beijing mall on May 11, 2020. Giulia Marchi, The New York Times

Major companies are asking workers to change their daily personal habits as well as their workplace conduct. Foxconn, the Taiwanese electronics giant that makes iPhones and other Western-branded gear in vast Chinese factories, has advised employees in a handout to eschew public transportation and walk, bike or drive instead.

Foxconn has also recommended that workers push elevator buttons with care, wash hands before and after touching documents and take lunches in staggered shifts. Buses and meeting rooms should be aired out, with windows open, it tells them.

BASF, the German chemical giant, put in place its own bus airing-out policy. In the early days of this new policy, workers wore extra layers to brace against cold air.

Employees are watched closely. If monitors at the company gates find a worker has a fever, that person is rushed to a hospital, and co-workers are put under quarantine. Managers also work with local government officials to find out whether a worker has been on a plane or train with an infected person.

“I think it would be almost impossible without the help of authorities,” said Brad Morrison, senior vice president of operations and site management at BASF.

Shifting rules from place to place have snarled logistics and supply chains, however. While restrictions have eased since China sharply limited movement around the country earlier in the outbreak, local authorities still sometimes erect temporary barriers, especially in places where sporadic infections have emerged.

Inside BASF facilities, the rules are uniform. Everyone wears a mask. Surfaces are wiped down regularly. In the canteen, no more than one person can sit at a table, and the tables have all been rearranged to face one direction. Some meeting rooms have been converted into temporary eating spaces to prevent crowding.

Employees who crank machine handles or press buttons work inside the plant. Everyone else communicates by walkie-talkies from outside. Laboratories and plants maintain A and B shifts. No face-to-face communication is allowed for shift handovers.

“These measures do make sense,” Morrison said. “It’s a small sacrifice to be able to operate your own plants.” 

China’s coronavirus back-to-work lessons: Masks and vigilance 3 employees check in with a smartphone app that reports the user’s estimated infection risk, using a QR code, at the company's offices in Beijing on May 11, 2020. Giulia Marchi, The New York Times

To stay safe, many employers have embraced government-endorsed and newly built-in health code functions in some of China’s most popular smartphone apps like Alipay and WeChat. One of the first services built to gauge a person’s infection risk, the health code function tracks a person’s travel to see whether he or she has been to areas with high infections, although the creators and the Chinese government have not disclosed full details about how it works. When prompted by health workers, police officers or security personnel, a person would display a code colored red, yellow or green.

The State Administration for Market Regulation, a business standards regulator, is creating a unified health data platform for information collected from citizens during the outbreak. But the system, which would use QR codes, is still in its early days and has already had glitches.

Liu Nan is not taking chances. The owner of two barbecued beef restaurants in Jiamusi in northeastern China, Liu asks his customers to show their smartphone health codes before they can enter.

“Some would complain that other restaurants are not that strict,” said Liu, who named his restaurant Chunli Jia, after his wife. “But we have to keep telling them that we want to make sure our restaurants are safe.”

China’s coronavirus back-to-work lessons: Masks and vigilance 4
Packages are sprayed with disinfectant at a delivery station in Beijing on May 11, 2020. Giulia Marchi, The New York Times

Like many other restaurant owners across China, Liu requires employees to attach a card to every order with the names of the people who prepared, wrapped and delivered the meal along with their body temperatures. Liu also does not want his workers to socialize too much. He asks his 14 cooks and servers to stay in the dormitories he has long rented for them.

“I told them if they really want to go out to have some fun, they can come to my house to play mahjong,” said Liu, 30.

China’s gig economy workers have to take their own precautions, often dictated by their de facto bosses.

In Beijing, Niu Baosui, 31, a driver for Didi Chuxing, the Chinese version of Uber, must upload a video to Didi’s internal platform each morning to show that he has sanitized his car and share his temperature before he sets out to work. On his own, Niu has taken to wiping down his car between orders, which these days is often much longer than it used to be. He also wears a mask and gloves.

“It is getting really warm now. Wearing a face mask makes my sweat drip even with the air conditioning on,” Niu said.

Some workers, deemed essential by authorities, had to learn what to do during the worst of China’s outbreak.

Zhang Hao, a courier for e-commerce giant, works in Wuhan, where the virus first emerged in December. The packages that Zhang handles are hosed down by disinfectant at the warehouse. He carries his own sanitizer spray. But now he can talk to his customers — earlier in the outbreak, his regular clients would hide behind a barrier of raincoats and do-it-yourself protective gear.

“Nowadays, we definitely still wear face masks,” Zhang said. “But we can have a chat.”

At headquarters in Beijing, elevators have been reprogrammed to stop only at designated floors to limit worker interaction. They also have markings for where people can stand.

Employees go into the office in two shifts. Many continue to work from home full time.

There are special trash cans for masks, tissues and food containers. The canteen is closed. Employees are encouraged to order their food online from the cafeteria and pick up their meals on different floors. The office building is disinfected three times a day.

BMW Brilliance, BMW’s joint venture with a Chinese automaker, has similar policies in its Beijing office, where about three quarters of employees go in to work these days.

“The biggest challenge is the huge economic and social pressure we face pushing us to open up too early and relax the measures too early,” said Wieland, the joint venture’s CEO.

“People want to get back to normal life, and everybody has to learn and understand that we have to behave more mindfully.”

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