China extends holiday, businesses shut as coronavirus toll rises to 81

Chinese corporate giants including Alibaba Group Holding and Tencent Holdings Ltd said they have asked staff to work from home for one week after an extended Lunar New Year break ends, seeking to limit the spread of a new flu-like virus.

The government has lengthened the week-long Lunar New Year holiday by three days to Feb. 2 in a bid to contain the virus which has killed 81. The total number of confirmed cases on Monday jumped about 30% to more than 2,700.

But many big businesses are going one step further, telling employees to work from home until Friday, Feb. 7 and not return to their offices until Monday, Feb. 10.

Alibaba said the measure applied across all its divisions, including to workers in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau as well as in mainland China. It employs more than 100,000 people worldwide, most of whom are in China.

The Shanghai government also imposed a similar measure, announcing that all companies in the city would not be allowed to start work before Feb. 9, as did the nearby city of Suzhou, home to a big industrial park for pharmaceutical firms and tech companies.

The decision by the Shanghai government will affect companies such as Tesla Inc, General Motors and Volkswagen which either own factories or operate them in the city through ventures with local partners.

Tiktok owner Bytedance was among the most stringent, requiring employees who travelled during the holidays to quarantine themselves and work from home for 14 days. Staff who had not travelled could start working from the office from Feb.10, though that date could change, according to an internal note seen by Reuters. Bytedance declined to comment.

Wuhan, a city of 11 million and the epicentre of the outbreak, is already in virtual lockdown and severe limits on movement are in place in several other Chinese cities.

E-commerce firm Pinduoduo, UBS Group AG and property developer Country Garden have also advised employees returning from Wuhan or Hubei province to quarantine themselves at home.

Haidilao International Holding, operator of a popular hotpot restaurant chain, said it would shut stores across China from Sunday to Friday - one of the biggest temporary closures by a nationwide chain to date.

Other brands such as Starbucks Corp have closed shops in Hubei province. Walt Disney Co's Shanghai Disney Resort said last week it will close until further notice.

In Hong Kong, where the holiday break is shorter, the stock exchange cancelled a Wednesday ceremony for the first trading day of the Lunar New Year, citing the increasing risks of the coronavirus infection.

The decision comes after Hong Kong banned residents of Hubei from entering the territory from Monday.

As companies brace for the virus to hit business, China's financial regulators said they were encouraging banks to lower lending rates for sectors heavily affected by the outbreak.

The Chinese-ruled gambling hub of Macau said it would bar anyone who has been in Hubei province within 14 days of their arrival from entering the city's casinos.