BEIJING – Temples have locked their doors. The Forbidden City, Shanghai Disneyland and other major tourist destinations are closed. Restaurant reservations are being cancelled.
A virus that has killed more than two dozen people and sickened hundreds more has all but shut down China's biggest holiday of the year, the Lunar New Year, which falls on Saturday. Instead of family reunions or sightseeing trips, many of the country's 1.4-billion people are hunkering down as the nation scrambles to prevent the virus from spreading further.
“Have bought food and snacks. Will not visit friends, relatives and not receive guests during the Spring Festival. Just stay at home to enjoy a quiet New Year," said a typical post on China's Weibo social media service.
The New Year holiday period, more commonly called the Spring Festival, has evolved over more than 3,000 years to become the most important of China's festivals.
Workers in cities or factory towns return to their hometowns to visit their parents, and others take vacations, in what has been described as the largest annual migration of people in the world. Millions still traveled this year, though authorities this week cut off flights, trains and other transport from Wuhan, after travelers from the city where the viral illness broke out started carrying it to other parts of China and abroad.
The Year of the Rat, one of 12 zodiac signs in the Chinese calendar, begins Saturday, and government offices and most companies shut down for a week starting New Year's Eve.
The day before the New Year is for family dinners, traditionally at home, and likely more so this year. The Beijing News newspaper reported that 15% of dinner reservations had been cancelled in the Chinese capital, and that some were buying dishes at restaurants to eat at home.
As celebrated in China and in many other places, it is largely a secular holiday, yet it includes rituals and traditions that derive from Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism, as well as from ancient myths and folk religions.
One of the popular versions of its origin involves an elderly wise man who used firecrackers and red paper to scare away a menacing mythical beast. Red lanterns and gifts of money in red envelopes are ubiquitous during the holiday, as are dragon dances, another legendary way to chase off evil spirits.
The holiday prompts some to make a rare visit to a temple, comparable to the way some Christians go to church only at Christmas and Easter.
Red lanterns festoon streets and buildings in Beijing, but the Lama Temple and others have been closed. The Ci’en Temple in Zhejiang province, where at least five cases of the new virus have been confirmed, said on its website that all religious activities and events during the Spring Festival have been canceled.
Beijing has also canceled temple fairs, which typically run for several days starting on New Years Day and draw thousands of people who jostle shoulder-to-shoulder between food and souvenir stands.
Authorities are discouraging any large gatherings of people, closing the Forbidden City, a popular tourist destination in Beijing that was the imperial palace of the Ming and Qing dynasties. Shanghai Disneyland said it would monitor the situation and consult with government officials to determine when to reopen.
The movies are not an option either. Lunar New Year is usually one of the biggest box office periods, generating more than $800 million in ticket sales last year, according to the China Film Administration.
But this year, studios postponed the premieres of seven major films and many theaters have closed.
“At the moment, every medical worker fighting on the front lines is our ‘vanguard,'” read a notice from one studio, announcing it would push back the debut of “Vanguard,” a thriller starring Jackie Chan. “We hope they return triumphantly!"
All movie theaters in Guangdong, a southern province with more than 110 million people, were ordered closed for the Spring Festival, while many theaters in Beijing shut down after the city's culture and tourism bureau ordered mass events to be canceled.
"Most every activity involving crowds of people have stopped" said a worker answering the phone at Chaoyang Theater, adding they were closed until Feb. 1.
Associated Press researcher Henry Hou and writer Dake Kang in Beijing and writer David Crary in New York contributed to this report.