Construction worker Zhang Zhenshu squinted his eyes as he fumbled on his phone for a digital health app at a railway station in Shijiazhuang, North China's Hebei province. A huge braided bag was lying piled near him, bulging with quilts, a thermal water bottle and other luggage. The 51-year-old was queuing up for a free bus ride to his home village on the city's northern outskirts — the only plausible way to reunite with his family any time soon, after a year's toil at a construction site in nearby Shanxi province. The city government of Shijiazhuang hit a pause button earlier this month by suspending outbound travel and public transportation as part of a broader effort to curb an outbreak of COVID-19 cases. However, tens of thousands of travelers — mostly homebound migrant workers and college students — keep streaming into the city every day from across the nation in the run-up to the Lunar New Year celebrations in mid-February. To ensure virus-free travel amid a citywide lockdown, local authorities have decided to arrange chartered bus services that cover all of the city's counties and districts. The provincial capital reported its first locally transmitted case on Jan 2, and in less than two weeks the city's confirmed caseload has reached about 500. The surge has driven fear into people who are planning trips to the city of 11 million. Zhang put off his travel plans last week because of the virus, trying a wait-and-see approach at his dormitory in hopes that the outbreak would be stamped out in the city in a matter of days. But the dormitory soon cut off electricity and water after most of his coworkers left for the Spring Festival break. Then he saw a glimmer of hope. "I knew about the bus service through a chat group on WeChat, where my fellow villagers exchange virus-related information," said Zhang, holding a negative nucleic acid test result, which is also required to board the vehicle. Also waiting in line was a woman who only gave her name as Dai. The graduate student returning from Baoding, another city in Hebei province, said the lockdown had chipped away at the hope of coming back until being informed about the bus service by family. "I am not worried" she said. "I know Shijiazhuang is fully prepared."A group of volunteers also have volunteered in to help returnees finish the last leg of their journey home. Among the Samaritans is Sun Xinna, who runs a local trading company. She also identified herself as a member of the city's youth federation, a mass group formed by young people from all walks of life. In a hazmat suit near her car park on the train station square, Sun said she was part of a program that aims to ferry train passengers, health workers and other essential workers amid the lockdown. Zhao Peilong, another volunteer driver, said he was stranded in the city after the government issued a stay-at-home order last week. Then he read about a notice posted by the federation about the program and decided to join. "Though I cannot go home anytime soon, I'd rather do something for the nation where I am," he said. Lyu Biao, a traffic policeman in the nearby city of Cangzhou who volunteered to help out at the Shijiazhuang Railway Station, said the station currently handles about 2,000 arrivals every day. More than 100 traffic police officers like him have been deployed from Cangzhou to help register the arrivals, check their nucleic acid test results and usher them to the right buses. "Before I came, I had been closely following the developments in Shijiazhuang on news apps," he said. "I just want to contribute my share."