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02:29 - Source: CNN
Hong Kong CNN  — 

It’s the most celebratory time of the year in China – but in many cities, festivities have been called off.

Saturday marks the first day of the Lunar New Year, also known in China as Spring Festival. It’s a time when families gather, often traveling huge distances to go home. Revelers gorge on banquets, give each other packets of money known as “hong bao,” wear the lucky color red, and set off firecrackers to scare off the legendary half-dragon, half-lion monster “Nian” who comes out of hiding during Lunar New Year.

But this year, the festive season has become a season of fear.

At a time when people would normally be enjoying New Year festivities, China is experiencing a coronavirus outbreak. In the six weeks since the outbreak began in the central city of Wuhan, 26 people have died and 830 people have fallen ill in mainland China from the virus, which is similar to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

Chinese passengers, almost all wearing protective masks, arrive to board trains before the annual Spring Festival at a Beijing railway station on January 23, 2020.

Wuhan – and several surrounding cities – are in partial lockdown. Authorities in Beijing have canceled all large-scale Lunar New Year celebrations, including traditional fairs and celebrations around temples.

And there’s other things that threaten to put a dampener on the holiday period, which lasts for 15 days.

Shanghai Disneyland has temporarily closed its doors. Seven blockbuster movies that were set to hit theaters this weekend have been canceled or postponed – a big deal given the holiday period is usually a huge draw for moviegoers.

Major New Year’s celebrations have also been canceled in the special administrative regions of Macao and Hong Kong, which have each reported two coronavirus cases.

Chinese police officers wear protective masks as they patrol before the annual Spring Festival at a Beijing railway station on January 23, 2020.

It’s hard to overstate the significance of this. Lunar New Year is to China what the Christmas-New Year holiday period is to the United States – except China’s 1.4 billion population is more than four times that of the US.

Earlier this month, China was bracing itself for 3 billion individual trips over the Spring Festival period – slightly up on last year’s 2.99 billion trips.

Now, hundreds of thousands of people in China are facing disrupted travel plans. On Thursday morning, travelers queued up at Wuhan’s high-speed railway station, trying to leave before trains stopped running.

A Chinese man wears a protective mask and goggles before boarding a train at a Beijing railway station on January 23, 2020.

China’s largest online travel agency announced that it would waive Wuhan cancellation policies, and pay travelers back if a hotel refuses to refund the booking fee.

Eva Kwang, 35, was at Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Station on Friday to cancel her family’s train tickets to Guangzhou, in southern Guangdong province.

She said she was sad that she couldn’t see her family, but was worried about her two kids. “I think the safety for us is more important than my dinner with them,” she told CNN. “I think I can go back and visit them after maybe one month or two months.”

On China’s social media platforms, there has been mixed reaction to what promises to be a more sedate holiday season.

One user found a positive – rather than going from house to house visiting different family members as is traditional during the Lunar New Year period, the poster could just call them on the phone.

But another – who claimed to be in Wuhan – seemed more upset. Although the person’s parents were only on the other side of the river, they couldn’t have dinner together, the poster claimed. “Do you guys understand the pain of people in Wuhan?”

CNN’s Sherisse Pham and Alex Lin contributed reporting.