China is ringing in the Lunar New Year with most of the COVID rules set aside

China is ringing in the Lunar New Year with most of the COVID rules set aside

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BEIJING – People across China rang in the Lunar New Year on Sunday with large family gatherings and crowds visiting temples after the government lifted its strict “zero-COVID” policy, marking the biggest festive celebration since the pandemic three years ago.

The Lunar New Year is the most important annual holiday in China. Each year is named after one of the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac in a recurring cycle, and this year is the Year of the Rabbit. For the past three years, celebrations have been muted under the shadow of the pandemic.

With most of the COVID-19 restrictions being eased, many people could finally make their first trip back to their hometowns to reunite with their families without worrying about the hassles of quarantine, lockdown possible and suspend travel. China’s Spring Festival, known as the Spring Festival, has also seen the return of a larger public celebration, with the capital hosting thousands of cultural events – on a scale larger than a year ago.

Mass movement of people could spread the virus in some areas, said Wu Zunyou, the chief epidemiologist at the China Center for Disease Control. But a large-scale outbreak of COVID-19 is unlikely in the next two to three months because about 80% of the country’s 1.4 billion people have been infected during the recent wave, he wrote on the social media platform Weibo on Saturday.

In Beijing, many worshipers offered morning prayers at the Lama Temple but the crowds seemed smaller compared to the pre-pandemic days. The Tibetan Buddhist site allows up to 60,000 visitors per day, citing safety reasons, and requires advance booking.

In Taoranting Park, there was no sign of the bustling food stalls for the New Year despite its paths being decorated with traditional Chinese lanterns. The popular temple fair at Badachu Park will be back this week, but similar events at Ditan Park and Loch Longan Park are yet to return.

In Hong Kong, revelers came to the city’s largest Taoist temple, Wong Tai Sin Temple, to burn the first incense sticks of the year. The site’s popular rituals have been suspended for the past two years due to the pandemic.

Traditionally, large crowds gather before 11 pm on Lunar New Year’s Eve, with everyone trying to be the first, or the first, to put their incense sticks into the stands in front of the temple’s main hall. Worshipers believe that those who are among the first to place their incense sticks on them will have the best chance of having their prayers answered.

Local resident Freddie Ho, who visited the temple on Saturday night, was happy that he could participate in the event in person.

“I hope to put the first stick of incense and pray that the New Year will bring world peace, that the economy of Hong Kong will prosper, and that the pandemic will go away and we can all live a normal life,” said Ho. “I believe this is what everyone wants.”

Associated Press researcher Henry Hou and video journalist Emily Wang in Beijing and video journalist Alice Fung in Hong Kong contributed to this report.

Find more of AP’s Asia-Pacific coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/asia-pacific

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