(Bloomberg) -- The Chinese capital of Beijing reported 5,006 cases for Wednesday, a record, as it struggles to contain the worst ever outbreak to hit the country’s political and cultural center amid public anger at the punishing Covid Zero regime. 

The surge comes at a critical moment for leaders, who have to decide whether to tolerate some spread of the virus or revert to strict Covid Zero curbs to halt the outbreak at the expense of the economy. While many districts are largely at a standstill through creeping curbs and with people afraid to go out, officials have refrained from declaring mass lockdowns or testing. 

The total number of infections are still a relatively small number for a city of 22 million, but they’ve been enough to send panic through the capital of a country that’s largely kept the virus out for nearly three years. Beijingers have hunkered down, fearful not just of the virus but of getting identified as a close contact and sent to government isolation facilities where conditions are poor. 

Across China, new Covid infections numbered 34,942 for Wednesday, coming slightly off a peak of 38,808 registered over the weekend. While case numbers may be naturally leveling off, the lowered count may also stem from recent moves to exempt those who stay at home for long periods of time, like children and the elderly, from frequent testing. 

Signs that China is taking a softer stance on Covid control has emerged in media and official rhetoric. In a meeting Wednesday with experts, Vice Premier Sun Chunlan pledged to “optimize” Covid control through “small but continued steps,” and did not use the phrase “dynamic Covid Zero.” 

Across China, cities facing outbreaks have moved away broad rules. Guangzhou on Wednesday ended lockdown measures in all but one of its 11 districts. Nevertheless, restrictions remained in many high-risk areas, leaving in place a complex web of rules for locals to navigate. Guangdong province reported 7,252 cases for Wednesday, while western metropolis Chongqing recorded 6,584. 

China Official Behind Strict Covid Lockdowns Softens Stance (1)

The softening comes as public discontent with the strict rules mount, ranging from residents fighting back against lockdown measures to hundreds gathering in street protests earlier this week. In Beijing, people in some housing compounds have banded together to stop officials from sealing off their residences or sending them to quarantine camps. 

With the surging numbers of infected, the capital is seeing its makeshift hospitals for mild Covid patients and those for treating more severe ones near capacity, which has also allowed more people to isolate at home by default. 

Fear of Quarantine Camps, Not Covid, Is Shutting Beijing Down

State media has also started to downplay Covid’s severity, saying the omicron variant has evolved to be far less virulent, citing scientific studies and medical experts.

(Updated throughout with more details)

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