'It was surreal': How a Bay Area man spent a week in China amid the coronavirus outbreak before following the CDC's advice to self-quarantine for 2 weeks after returning to the US

'It was surreal': How a Bay Area man spent a week in China amid the coronavirus outbreak before following the CDC's advice to self-quarantine for 2 weeks after returning to the US
coronavirus mask china man



A man, not the Bay Area resident we spoke to, is seen wearing a mask in Shanghai, China, on March 4.

  • A Bay Area resident visited Kunming in China's Yunnan province 979 miles southwest of Wuhan, where COVID-19 originated, on January 25 in the midst of the coronavirus disease outbreak.
  • Despite it being Chinese New Year, he said the streets were completely empty and the effects of the virus seemed to worsen each day, with businesses closing and stores running out of stock.
  • He was never tested for the virus nor exhibited symptoms, but he took the CDC's advice and became one of the thousands to self-quarantine with his wife and son for 14 days in his Cupertino home after returning on February 2.
  • Seeing how differently the Chinese and US governments each handled the virus convinced him that he feels safer in China than he does on American soil.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

It was a strange sight in Kunming, China, for Chinese New Year.

The 40-day event celebrates the beginning of the new year in the traditional Chinese calendar. Also known as the Lunar New Year Spring Festival, 3 billion trips are made throughout China during the holiday and many in the country typically are off work. It's a time to spend with family and is a cause for celebration.

But for a 36-year-old UX designer from Cupertino - who requested to stay anonymous but whose identity was verified by Business Insider - who visited China from January 25 to February 2, it was a ghost town. The streets were empty, and many opted to stay indoors, the man told Business Insider over the phone.


The US citizen and Bay Area resident of 20 years, along with five relatives including his wife, also hunkered down in a relative's home throughout their visit as COVID-19 gripped the country and would later spread across the globe.

COVID-19, a respiratory disease caused by a novel coronavirus, started in Wuhan in China's Hubei province 979 miles northeast of Kunming and began to spread across China and into other parts of the world. The virus has now infected 94,000 people and has killed more than 3,200, with most cases in China. The US has reported at least 130 cases, at least 80 countries beyond China have confirmed cases of the virus, and travel restrictions have been put in place in an attempt to contain the disease.

The Bay Area resident that Business Insider spoke to returned to the US on February 2, the same day that a new restriction was put into place advising all returning US citizens from mainland China to undergo a two-week self-quarantine. The resident said he may have been on the first flight whose passengers were told to do so. He would become one of the initial 5,400 Californians asked by officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to quarantine themselves in their homes for 14 days, the presumed maximum incubation period. If he had returned from China's Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, the quarantine would have been federally mandated.

There are now more than 8,000 Californians that were asked to self-quarantine in an attempt to monitor their health status and potentially contain the disease. The concept of voluntary self-quarantining - also known as self-isolating - is also being put into practice by others across the country and the world out of precaution, whether the subject is exhibiting symptoms or not. For example, a Brooklyn man who had returned from Japan with symptoms but was denied a CDC test for the virus quarantined himself in his one-bedroom apartment for 14 days, as Business Insider's Morgan McFall-Johnsen reported. Subjects remain indoors with limited ventures into the public, stock up on food, and work from home if they are able to.

The Bay Area resident completed his self-quarantine on February 17, but the virus still heavily concerns him, as does his experience in China. While he was there, he said things seemed to get worse every day as the virus took hold of the country and stoked fear in the public.


"I was almost afraid I couldn't come back," he said.


A 'surreal' Chinese New Year

A 'surreal' Chinese New Year

In his passport, a photo of which he shared with Business Insider, stamps indicate the Bay Area resident's entry into China on January 25 and his exit on February 2.

He flew out of San Francisco International Airport on January 23 with his wife and son. At the time, the panic surrounding the coronavirus had not yet taken hold in the US. As of January 20, there were 217 confirmed cases of the coronavirus disease and three confirmed deaths, all in China.

In China, he said precautions were already being taken. He flew Cathay Pacific Airways, a Chinese carrier, and flight attendants donned masks.

Instead of a direct flight to Hong Kong as was previously scheduled, the plane was diverted to Hosaka, Japan, so that crew members could disembark. But while stopped there, Japanese officials boarded the plane and took every passenger's temperature before continuing on to Hong Kong, according to the man.

Once in Hong Kong, he missed his connecting flight and had to stay in the city for a day, and also went through immigration which took more time.

At the airport in Hong Kong, he said locals were wearing masks. Just a couple of days earlier, news had begun circulating about the virus that had originated in Wuhan, and he said Chinese residents remember what it was like experiencing the SARS outbreak in 2003.

He eventually landed in Kunming, China, in the Yunnan province, which sits about 979 miles southwest of Wuhan. And he said it was immediately clear that it wasn't the usual atmosphere for a Chinese New Year.

"You could already tell that it was not the usual," he said.

He said it was "a surreal experience." Businesses were shutting down, lots of people wouldn't go out, and hand sanitizer, rubbing alcohol, and face masks were out of stock in some stores. Throughout his visit in Kunming, he said things seemed to get worse every single day.

"Whatever you see on those videos, it was exactly like that," he said of video clips depicting cleared-out streets in China.

He said a Walmart and a Carrefour were open, as well as some corner stores.

He and his family remained inside a relative's home the entire visit.

He and his family remained inside a relative's home the entire visit.

He told Business Insider that he traveled to China to celebrate the Chinese New Year but also to visit a sick relative with late-stage cancer.

The relative was taken to the hospital during his visit. But the virus required the full attention of medical staff, who the man said didn't have the bandwidth to treat her.

They returned home with the sick relative, and she died shortly after.

The Bay Area resident said the people who arrived to transport the body to the morgue wore hazmat suits in light of the spreading virus. There was also a government-mandated cremation order in place for families to see to within 12 hours of a loved one's death, which he said he and his family followed.

He said around that time was when the Chinese equivalent of the Homeowners Association, or HOA, started posting information about the ongoings inside the community that he was visiting, including who was opting to self-quarantine.

And then things started getting worse towards the end of his trip.


There were checkpoints at every highway exit, and the streets were completely empty.

There were checkpoints at every highway exit, and the streets were completely empty.

According to a February 7 Business Insider report, the virus had infected more than 31,000 in China and had killed more than 630 people by then.

The man said he flew Cathay Pacific directly from Hong Kong to SFO on February 2. When he was checking in for his flight, the plane status said it would be at full capacity. But when he boarded, the plane was half-empty.

At the airport in Kunming, he said there were large infrared portals checking people's temperatures. He and his fellow passengers received full-body checks.

But he said it was when he arrived back to the US at SFO — and he saw how the virus was being addressed — that "the alarm bells" sounded.

"They literally had no idea what they were doing," he said. One airport official even admitted that since things had escalated so quickly, they were in disarray.

Passengers deboarded the plane, he said, and no one was recording temperatures. One of the symptoms of the disease is a fever, though cases have also been found to be asymptomatic. He also said no one was wearing masks.

It took him hours to go through the immigration process, the temperature-taking, and the paperwork. The man said the paperwork that the CDC gave him was handwritten and then photocopied.

Since he nor his family members exhibited any symptoms or felt sick, they were not tested for the coronavirus disease. Those that had returned from China were taken from the immigration gate to a designated area to have their temperature taken.

"That's when the CDC got involved," he said.

"That's when the CDC got involved," he said.

Officials asked returnees for some personal information and then gave them info cards about how to self-quarantine for 14 days.

If the resident Business Insider spoke to had returned from China's Hubei province, he would have been given a government-mandated quarantine. But what he was given instead was a verbal recommendation to stay home and avoid going in public for 14 days. CDC officials also told him, should he visit a primary care doctor, to give them the info card.

Then they had to wait in "the little black room" in the airport typically used for passengers with visa problems. Everyone that came from China was held there for a period of time, he said.

The Bay Area resident said immigration officials didn't wear any sort of protection, like masks, and they were impatient with people, telling them to stop asking questions when they inquired about the status of their wait time.

"It was really not a good experience at that point," he said.

After four hours, he made his way with his wife and son to his two-bedroom home in Cupertino. He returned to the US right when health officials began asking returning US citizens to self-quarantine for 14 days. The action went into effect on February 2 at 2 pm PT — his flight landed at 3 pm.

"If I had landed two hours earlier, I wouldn't have had to self-quarantine," he said.


'I don't think this quarantine was effective at all'

'I don't think this quarantine was effective at all'

The first step was to stock up on supplies.

He said he bought food, water, and only some vegetables since they wouldn't last. He had his dad deliver fresh vegetables and fruit one day during his quarantine.

There was plenty of living space in his family's two-bedroom house for him, his wife, and his son. He, a UX designer for a mid-size company in the Valley, worked remotely out of his home, something he said his company was very understanding about.

His son's school, however, needed some convincing to excuse his absences. The man wished to keep his son at home for the 14-day quarantine as well. But he said when he called the school, they told him his absences wouldn't be excused and his son should attend, despite his visit to China.

The family returned to the Bay Area on a Sunday, and the following day his son went to school. It was only after his son spoke to classmates about his trip abroad that worried parents started asking questions regarding why he was allowed to be around other kids. His son remained at home after attending school that one day.

"If we had the virus, it would have already been out," the man said.

He said the CDC did not contact him once during his quarantine to check in on his and his family's health.

"I'm seeing reports now that the CDC is monitoring, but what are they monitoring?" he said.

He left the house six times during the 14-day period. Cabin fever certainly set in for the family of three, but it was manageable. "It was like living at home," he said.

His son spent his time playing video games. The man said he wanted to be honest with him when explaining the disease and its global impact.

"You don't want to sugarcoat it," he said.

'I don't feel safe coming to work'

'I don't feel safe coming to work'

He completed his quarantine on Monday, February 17, and he said he feels concerned about how the virus is being handled.

A Chinese-American, he said he hasn't experienced any blatant hate directed toward him. But he wears a mask when he goes out in public and said he receives worried glances at the grocery store, with people avoiding him. And he said friends of his that are also in the Bay Area Chinese community have experienced racism from others.

His company was understanding about him working from home for two weeks, but he said he doesn't see his coworkers grasping the gravity of the situation. He spends his workday in the office now.

At the airports in China, the man said he saw officials and passengers wearing masks and taking precautions. And when he landed at SFO, he experienced disorder as airport officials attempted to get their bearings as the virus spread.

"As someone who was in China during the initial outbreak/lockdowns and restrictions and seeing the situation develop here in the US I am 100x more concerned for my own safety during this crisis than I ever was in China," he told Business Insider in a message.

There are now 130 confirmed cases in the US across 16 states, including New York and Washington State. There are cases of "community spread" in the US, meaning patients are contracting the virus despite not traveling outside the US. And CDC test kits for the virus are limited.

"We're the richest country in the world," he said. "We should be the most prepared."