200 German employees under a “fast track” program set to arrive in China with the aim to help revive the economy

Commuters wear face masks to protect against the coronavirus as they walk through a subway station in Beijing, Tuesday, May 26, 2020. With declining virus case numbers, students have gradually returned to class and some international schools in Beijing are preparing to reopen on June 1. China’s ceremonial parliament is meeting this week, with social distancing and other anti-virus measures being used. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

A flight carrying about 200 employees of German companies to China is to arrive Saturday in the first mass return of foreign workers since Beijing barred most visitors from overseas two months ago to fight the coronavirus.

The employees obtained visas under a “fast track” program aimed at helping revive the economy, said Jens Hildebrandt, executive director of the German Chamber of Commerce in China. The chamber organized this week’s flight and a second planned for June 3.

“There is huge demand,” Hildebrandt said Tuesday.

China, where the outbreak began in December, stopped admitting most foreigners including those with residence permits on March 28 in an attempt to avoid re-importing the virus. Foreign workers already in the country were allowed to stay and visitors could apply for a visa for a business or other urgent reason. But that left thousands of employees of U.S., European and other foreign companies waiting abroad.

Factories, shops, offices and other businesses reopened in late March but curbs on foreign visitors stayed in place.

Chinese authorities are weighing their desire to have foreign business people return against health concerns, Hildebrandt said.

Most of the returning employees are required to undergo quarantine for two weeks in a hotel picked by the government, according to Hildebrandt. He said a second option requires only 48 hours of quarantine but is available only for a small number of people who will have no contact with neighbors or coworkers.

The group consists of employees, their dependents or specialists for companies ranging from automaker Volkswagen to enterprises with a single foreign worker in China, Hildebrandt said. He said they were citizens of Germany and other countries.

Some 2,000 to 2,500 employees of German companies are waiting to return to China, according to Hildebrandt. He said the chamber is considering organizing a third flight.

Employees are required to test negative for the virus before boarding, then undergo two more tests after arrival, Hildebrandt said.

Previously, companies could apply for visas but had to prove the “economic importance” of an employee, said Hildebrandt. He said few did.

In the “fast track” process, visas will be issued based on an invitation from the government in the urban district where a company operates, Hildebrandt said.

This week’s charter flight on the German carrier Lufthansa is from Frankfurt to Tianjin, east of Beijing. The flight in June is from Frankfurt to Shanghai.

“We are also talking to another couple of countries and chambers that might want to join,” said Hildebrandt. “If these first two flights work, and we expect them to work, then it really is a good example for this program.”

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Source: Associated Press – JOE McDONALD