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Restaurants in Shanghai Offer ‘Secret Dining’ to Circumvent ‘Zero-COVID’ Policies

A native of New York, Alina has a Bachelors degree in Corporate Communications from Baruch College and writes about human rights' related issues, politics, tech and society.
Published: June 24, 2022
People in Shanghai dine out in secret with the lights turned off to avoid detection by health authorities. (Image: via Twitter/Screenshot)

After undergoing some of the strictest lockdown measures ever seen in the world, China’s largest city continues to be held under varying degrees of restrictions. Nearly half of the city’s population has been told to stay home in order to quell a newly detected wave of the virus, and mass testing is being enforced on approximately 12 million people.  

A recent transmission chain traced back to the city’s popular Minhang district has resulted in authorities once again tightening restrictions and announcing the shutdown of most entertainment venues, internet cafes and indoor dining places until further notice.

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Now, as frustrated residents are once again faced with lockdowns and movement curbs, some restaurant-owners have attempted to come up with clever solutions — albeit illegal in the eyes of Chinese authorities — in order to continue welcoming guests and keep their businesses from going under.

According to a report by U.S.-based outlet Radio Free Asia (RFA), certain restaurants in Shanghai have begun offering “secret lights-out dining and fake recruitment drives” in a desperate effort to circumvent the city’s stringent “zero-COVID” restrictions.

Despite authorities announcing that Shanghai’s citywide lockdown would end on June 1, and commercial businesses such as hair salons and gyms once again being allowed to resume operations, the city’s municipal authorities have yet to lift a ban on in-house dining. 

“They’re still not allowing people to eat in,” an anonymous resident from the city’s Huangpu district told RFA. “I can only eat secretly in the upstairs area, as dining in isn’t generally allowed, only takeout.”

“My brother did the same — a friend invited him out to eat, and they went upstairs to an area of the restaurant you couldn’t see,” the resident, surnamed Yang, said.

‘An underground party’

Some videos and pictures posted on Chinese social media site Weibo (a Twitter-like platform) showed people sitting at restaurant tables filled with food, however these people appeared to sit in complete darkness, and were using the flashlights from their phones to help illuminate the food they were eating. 

People are seen “secretly dining” in the dark in some restaurants across Shanghai with only their phones to illuminate the food. (Image: via Twitter)
“Secret restaurants” in Shanghai pictured by netizens in China. (Image: via Twitter)

Other posts claimed that the restaurants had asked diners to fill out “application forms” requesting to work there — passing them off as employees — and then secretly served them meals in order to avoid detection from enforcement authorities. 

If questioned by health authorities or local police, the restaurant would claim that “as employees they were all allowed to eat together” inside the dining facility. After the “employees” finished their meals, the diners would then “resign from payroll,” RFA’s report said — likening the process to an “underground party.”

“Many restaurants have closed down because they haven’t been able to survive [lockdown], which has lasted for more than three months,” Yang said. “If you rent premises … it’s going to cost tens of thousands of yuan a month, so they haven’t been able to keep up with it.”

Struggling economy

On June 23, China’s CDC confirmed that 120 new cases had been detected, with the majority of those being asymptomatic. The prolonged lockdowns and restrictions have resulted in devastating effects to China’s nationwide economy — with an over 11 percent drop in retail sales as well as major supply chain disruptions and subsequent decline in consumer spending. 

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Figures released by the country’s National Bureau of Statistics in April revealed industrial production dipping by 2.9 percent, while automobile sales had slowed by a staggering 31.6 percent compared to the same time last year. 

Meanwhile, the unemployment rate in China’s 31 largest cities hit a record high of 6.7 percent in April, while total social financing (a broad measure of credit and liquidity used to measure economic values) fell by about half from a year ago to 910.2 billion yuan.