Millions of workers from the manufacturing hub of Guangdong Province have yet to return to their jobs nearly a month after the Lunar New Year holiday, new data reveals.
The no-shows reflect a local labor crunch caused by virus-related travel restrictions after the extended break.
An analysis of roaming usage from Guangdong-registered mobile phones showed that through Sunday, some 10 million people were waiting to return to the wealthy province in South China, officials announced on Tuesday. The number included 1.7 million people from Hubei Province -- epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak that has infected nearly 80,000 and killed more than 2,000 in China.
The virus first came to national attention in late January as throngs of Chinese were heading home from cities for Lunar New Year family reunions. As one of China's top manufacturing hubs, Guangdong was an early magnet for millions of migrant workers, who journey home each new year.
But following the explosive outbreak in January, Beijing extended the holiday for at least two weeks to keep millions from returning to their jobs in the hope of containing the virus. More than three weeks after the holiday was officially set to end, data like the roaming analysis shows how many companies remain understaffed.
The latest analysis comes as Guangdong on Tuesday joined several other provinces in lowering its alert level, as the virus' spread shows signs of slowing inside China. In Guangdong, the province lowered its alert level from highest to second highest, though officials were quick to caution that the move did not indicate the crisis had reached a turning point.
Guangdong has 1,347 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the second-highest figure in China after only Hubei, origin of the outbreak with nearly 65,000 cases. Many of Guangdong's infections have been tied to Lunar New Year family gatherings.
"As the epidemic in Hubei is still being bought under control, the country is still implementing strict control measures on movement from Wuhan and Hubei, and suggests that people who plan to come from Hubei to Guangdong should delay their plans," said Chen Zhusheng, a Guangdong health official who spoke at the briefing.
Under current policy, people returning to Guangdong from other parts of China must show a certificate indicating good health or register with local authorities upon arrival. People returning from high-incidence areas are quarantined for 14 days and receive regular temperature checks before they can return to work.
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