SHANGHAI, Following two months of frustration, despair and economic loss, Shanghai’s draconian COVID-19 lockdown ended at midnight on Wednesday morning, prompting celebrations tempered with fear that an outbreak could return.

Most of Shanghai’s 25 million residents can now freely leave home, return to work, use public transport and drive their cars – a moment that for many in China’s largest and most cosmopolitan city felt like it would never arrive.

At midnight, small groups gathered in the city’s former French Concession neighbourhood whistled, shouted “ban lifted” and clinked glasses of champagne.

Earlier, streets were lively as residents picnicked on grassy patches and children rode bikes down carless roads. Dancing retirees, a common evening sight in Chinese cities, strutted their stuff for the first time in months in open air plazas and along the Huangpu river.

Shanghai Disneyland, which has yet to announce a reopening date, livestreamed a lightshow to “celebrate the lifting of Shanghai’s lockdown”. They used a Chinese expression that also means “ban” that city officials have avoided.

Under streetlamps, barbers gave haircuts to residents who had grown shaggy under lockdown. On the WeChat social media platform, shops announced their reopening plans.

“I walked the dog and the dog is pretty excited, because it has been a really long time for it to come outside,” said Melody Dong, who was looking forward to eating hot pot and barbecue – foods that are difficult to make at home.

Shanghai’s ordeal has come to symbolise what critics say is the unsustainability of China’s adherence to a zero-COVID policy that aims to cut off every infection chain, at any cost, even as much of the world tries to return to normal despite ongoing infections.

During two months, numerous residents of the country’s most important financial and economic hub struggled to get enough food or medical care. Families were separated and hundreds of thousands were forced into centralised quarantine facilities.

“The Shanghai government needs to make a public apology in order to obtain the understanding and support of the people of Shanghai and repair the damaged relationship between the government and the people,” Qu Weiguo, a professor at Fudan University’s school of foreign languages, posted on WeChat.

On Tuesday, the city’s largest quarantine facility – a 50,000-bed section of the National Exhibition & Convention Center – discharged the last two of the 174,308 COVID-postive cases who had been housed there. It declared itself shut.