Shoppers have returned to the streets and restaurants are welcoming back old patrons. But as China leaves behind the worst effects of the pandemic, computer screens remain dark in some of the country’s cybercafes.

“When are the internet cafes opening? Overwatch is releasing new heroes, please open the door and let me play,” one Weibo user pleaded.

With infections falling to a new low, authorities are eager to reignite an economy that’s been stalled since late January, pushing businesses and factories to get back to work. But while cybercafes and other indoor entertainment venues were initially given the go-ahead to reopen, they were promptly ordered by various cities to close again within days.

The abrupt reversal confused loyal customers who have been waiting for months to revisit their favorite haunts.

Customers at an internet cafe in Beijing on May 31, 2017. (Picture: Roman Pilipey/EPA)

While cybercafes are largely considered a primitive vestige of the early internet age, they have survived in parts of Asia as watering holes for avid gamers. For less than a dollar an hour, patrons can relax on plush chairs while waging battles on League of Legends and drifting race cars on QQ Speed.

With national numbers hovering between 130,000 and 150,000 in recent years, Chinese cybercafes aren’t exactly a booming industry. But they’ve continued to draw gamers looking for a cheap place to hang out and blow off steam. Many say they come for the atmosphere and camaraderie.

“How is playing by yourself at home as comfortable as playing in an internet cafe with friends?” a Zhihu user asked in response to a question about why people would still pay for a seat in front of a computer when most already have a PC at home.

“There’re a lot of people at my house, lots of noise and things going on… And my parents tend to complain a lot when they see me gaming all day long, so I might as well go out and play.”

Some patrons say internet cafes offer a refuge for lonely urbanites. (Picture: Roman Pilipey/EPA)

At a time when social distancing is becoming the new norm, though, gathering places like internet cafes are of particular concern to authorities. In Hubei, whose capital city Wuhan was the center of the coronavirus outbreak, cybercafes are among nine types of indoor facilities that are specifically banned from reopening until the pandemic ends.

In Tianjin, a port city in northeast China, cybercafes are still closed, according to netizens.

“Today is the 84th day of cybercafe closure,” wrote a Weibo user on Wednesday.

“Can Tianjin’s cybercafes ever reopen?” asked another.

Going nearly three months without income is a long time for any business, and it appears to be especially hard for China’s cybercafes, many of them mom-and-pop shops in residential neighborhoods of second- and lower-tier cities. Without steep pockets to weather the crisis, some did not survive.

“I found that the internet cafe at the entrance to our neighborhood, the one with upscale decorations, has now become a supermarket,” said one Weibo user in Changsha. “This internet cafe was really killed by the pandemic.”

“Three internet cafes have already gone out of business in our little town… Let’s see who’s next,” another noted dryly.

Some blame authorities’ reluctance to let internet cafes reopen on the lingering notoriety surrounding the industry. It goes back to 2002, when two teens set fire to an internet cafe in Beijing, killing 25 people, most of them students.

The disaster shocked the nation and drew a wave of public anger. Hundreds of thousands of cafes shut down under a government crackdown, and remaining venues were depicted as modern “opium dens” that are poisoning the country’s youngsters.

Young Beijingers surfing the internet at a cyber cafe in 2002, before China barred minors from visiting them. (Picture: Mark Ralston/SCMP)

Supporters say internet cafes have vastly improved since then, implementing ID checks and even facial recognition cameras to spot underage visitors.

There is some good news for fans in Shanghai, Sanya and some other cities. Industry insiders report that internet cafes are gradually reopening with stringent hygiene measures in place, such as enforcing a 50% seat occupancy, checking the body temperature of all customers, and scanning health codes on their phones.

Elsewhere, fans of cybercafes are still waiting for life to go back to normal.

“Work is exhausting, and it’s finally time to get off and go to an internet cafe to play games and relax, but the internet cafes still won’t open, sigh,” one Weibo user bemoaned.