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Middlebury student stuck in Beijing during coronavirus emergency says atmosphere is tense

A child on a train in China on Jan. 25.
A child on a train in China on Jan. 25.Benjy Renton (custom credit)

Watching movies and eating takeout every night, Benjy Renton and seven other students are seemingly living a normal college life, he said. Except that they’re in Beijing, holed up in a dorm as the coronavirus blankets the city with fear.

Renton, a junior at Middlebury College, and 10 other students arrived in China on Dec. 26 as part of the Middlebury January term study abroad program, he said in a telephone interview Thursday night. But as the virus beset the country, Middlebury called the students back from the various locations where they were staying in China to gather in Beijing, where some have left and the others have been waiting to get a flight home.

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“It’s definitely a pretty tense atmosphere,” said Renton, who is from Rye, N.Y. “Many public areas refuse entrance to anyone not wearing masks. There are a lot of unknowns as to how the virus can spread, and people are taking any precautions they can to limit their contact with people."

The World Health Organization has declared a global health emergency due to concerns about the coronavirus, which is believed to have originated in China. The State Department has issued a travel advisory urging Americans not to visit China, airlines are canceling flights there, and travelers coming from China are being screened at US airports. The number of people infected in China has reached almost 10,000 and 213 deaths have been recorded.

The students in the Middlebury program have been asked to stay on campus at Capital Normal University in Beijing. If they want to leave, they must notify their director and sign out with a guard at the gate, leaving their student ID number, their phone number, and explaining why they’re leaving and when they’ll return, Renton said.

“The city is pretty deserted,” Renton said. “Many people have been in their homes for maybe a week or more, and many have not even gone out.”

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Since the outbreak, Renton, an editor at his student paper The Middlebury Campus, has been tweeting live updates on his situation. Videos posted to his Twitter show him riding his bike to pick up takeout for the students. On one of the takeout receipts, Renton explained, people who handled the food at the restaurant had their temperature taken and written on the slip.

On Wednesday, Middlebury announced that its spring semester programs in China would be suspended. Thirty-seven students had signed up to attend, including Renton and 10 others who were in the country for a separate January session. Some who went to China for the January session are from other schools, he said.

Middlebury spokeswoman Sarah Ray said in an e-mail Wednesday that all students and staff would leave by Saturday, .

“I’m among the last to leave Saturday evening, but we’ve had three people leave in the last couple hours," Renton said. “We have two more out today, and we have the remainder [leaving] on Saturday.” His flight leaves at 6 p.m Saturday.

All the students should be in the US by 12:30 a.m. EST Sunday, Renton wrote in his blog, which he has been updating daily.

While in South Railway Station in Beijing, he said in a tweet, he saw a man in a hazmat suit taking temperatures of people standing in line. Masks are plentiful on campus, he said, and he also saw them being sold for the US equivalent of $5 as he walked around the city.

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When one person walked through the gates to the campus, Renton said in a tweet, a security officer told the person to wear a mask next time. “It’s for the good of all of us,” the security officer said.

Since the coronavirus outbreak began, Middlebury has been periodically sending students in China updates regarding the school’s plans. On Wednesday, they sent an e-mail to the students with instructions to leave and options for them to continue education this spring.

“With the situation unfolding so rapidly, we often waited until the next day to see what new piece of information we might be able to base the next move on — yet every day there was more uncertainty,” said Bill Mayers, assistant director of MIddlebury’s international programs, in the e-mail. “For those of you currently in China, we ask that you make arrangements to leave China as soon as you are able.”

Renton, who has traveled to China multiple times and hopes to work there over the summer, is considering returning to the country during the fall for another study abroad program.

“This is obviously a decision that was beyond any of our control, and it definitely flustered a lot of people,” said Renton. “I know many other students were disappointed and shocked because a lot of them believed it was their only time to travel to China.”

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Material from Globe wire services was used in this report. Matt Berg can be reached at matthew.berg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter@mattberg33.