February 5, 2020 / 4:32 AM / 23 days ago

China farmers, firms feel the pinch on edge of virus exclusion zone

JIUJIANG, China (Reuters) - This time of year is normally peak season for Li Zimin, a strawberry farmer in Jiujiang, a Chinese city on the outer edge of an exclusion zone aimed at bottling up a coronavirus epidemic that has killed almost 500 people.

Strawberry farmer Li Zimin walks past a greenhouse at his farm where sales have been severely affected by the coronavirus outbreak in Jiujiang, Jiangxi province, China, February 4, 2020. Picture taken February 4, 2020. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

Li, 38, has 23 greenhouses covering 1.5 acres, but his sales have plummeted, with customers staying at home to avoid contagion. Many of his now ripe strawberries might have to be thrown away, he said.

“The Spring Festival is supposed to be our best time,” he said.

“This year it has coincided with this, so there will definitely be losses,” he said of the outbreak. “I just hope this epidemic can be over quickly. That way my strawberries can return to normal sales levels.”

China is under increasing global isolation as a result of the outbreak believed to have originated in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province. Hubei has in turn been put under virtual lockdown, with train and plane services suspended and roads sealed off.

Jiujiang, which is separated from Hubei by the Yangtze river, has reported 86 cases of infection. The city of about 5 million people has restricted access to the bridges connecting it to Hubei and is also monitoring the river.

Businesses have been feeling the pinch, with the city ordering restaurants, karaoke parlours, cinemas and other venues to close until further notice.

Banquets and other gatherings have also been prohibited.

“It doesn’t look good for this year,” said the owner of a Muslim restaurant, surnamed Ma, who wondered what he would do with the extra supplies he brought in for a Lunar New Year surge in business that never happened.

Taxi driver Liao Jidong marvelled during a tour of Jiujiang’s main shopping streets on Tuesday at how unusually quiet it was on the eleventh day of the new year, an auspicious date in the Chinese calendar. 

    “So this year I guess they’ll have to wait until the outbreak ends and then find some new auspicious dates,” he said.

Reporting by Martin Pollard,; Editing by David Stanway and Robert Birsel

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