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The Effect of Coronavirus on American Chinese Restaurants, Explained

Chinatowns across the country are experiencing economic crises due to the novel coronavirus and its surrounding panic. Here’s what you should know.

US-LIFESTYLE-CHINATOWN ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

While the United States has only 12 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus (2019-nCoV) that was first reported in Wuhan, China, fallout from the epidemic has had a major impact in American Chinese restaurants and U.S. Chinatowns from New York to Seattle. With sudden restrictions on international travel and cancelled flights to and from mainland China, where there have been over 40,000 cases of the virus, accompanied by a rash of coronavirus panic in the U.S., these businesses are experiencing huge economic losses.

While traveling, Chinese tourists spend about $258 billion a year according to the World Tourism Organization. But now, with strict travel guidelines in place, income from tourism has been fractioned. Airlines like Delta, American, and United have suspended flights, while Chinese airlines like Air China and China Eastern have greatly reduced or ceased travel to the U.S. completely. Tour guides and travel agents who cater to Chinese visitors in New York City, the number one U.S. destination among Chinese tourists, tell the New York Times that their buses, hotel rooms, and restaurant tables are sitting empty. They’re losing out on business from non-Chinese tourists and locals, too, as a result of xenophobia, racism, and general coronavirus panic.

What’s happening to Chinatown restaurants across the U.S.?

The Times reports that NYC’s three main Chinatowns — in Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn — have seen business drop from 50 to 70 percent in the last two weeks. The owners of restaurants like historic Nom Wah Tea Parlor in Manhattan describe their environs as a “ghost town,” telling Grub Street that business had reached a five-year slowdown last Monday.

Steve Ip, owner of Yin Ji Chang Fen, tells the Times that he’s been expecting crowds of international students visiting New York-based family during the Lunar New Year: They haven’t materialized, and business at Yin Ji Chang Fen is down by half.

The phenomenon is widespread. Restaurants in Boston’s Chinatown are suffering, too: At a time when businesses like New Golden Gate Seafood Restaurant are normally bustling, that establishment and others are practically empty, Boston radio station WBUR reports. Business leaders in Houston’s Chinatown are seeing the same situation. The owner of Houston’s Shabu house, Debbie Chen, tells Houston TV station KPRC2 news that she’s worried about being able to pay her staff. Internationally, Chinatowns in London and Sydney observe declining business as well.

In San Francisco, Chinese Merchants Association spokesperson Edward Siu says foot traffic has dropped 50 percent in Chinatown. Despite no cases of coronavirus being contracted in San Francisco, Siu thinks unfounded fears about the virus are to blame. “We are safe and we are healthy,” Siu tells NBC Bay Area. “Don’t worry about whatever the rumors say. Chinatown is safe.”

How do fear and racism play into the coronavirus response?

In addition to the decline of visitors from China who might visit Chinese restaurants in U.S. cities, many American customers have stopped visiting their local Chinatowns due to baseless fears or misinformation. In San Francisco, for example, Chinatown pastry shop AA Bakery experienced a drop in business when an untrue rumor spread on WhatsApp that a bakery employee had gotten the new coronavirus.

Debbie Chen of Shabu House in Houston also suggests misinformation is to blame for the drop off in customers. There are no coronavirus cases reported in the Houston area, but Chen says social media rumors that there have been still harm her business.

As Eater’s Jenny G. Zhang writes, “the outbreak has had a decidedly dehumanizing effect, reigniting old strains of racism and xenophobia that frame Chinese people as uncivilized, barbaric ‘others’ who bring with them dangerous, contagious diseases.” Preliminary, unconfirmed reports linking the new coronavirus to a market in Wuhan also contributed to a wave of Sinophobia that smears Chinese eating habits and conflates them with the illness — despite the fact that most respiratory viruses like the new coronavirus are passed from person to person, not through food.

In Seattle’s Chinatown-International District Business Improvement Area, Harry Chan, owner of the 85-year-old Tai Tung restaurant, says he’s not surprised by what’s happening. “It does hurt the business a little bit, but the sad news is we expect that,” he tells Seattle’s King 5 News. Chan saw the same situation during the 2003 SARS outbreak: For him, negative news stories about China and deflated business as a result are cyclical occurrences.

To break the cycle, Monisha Singh, director of the Seattle Chinatown-International District Business Improvement Area, emphasizes that now is the time for neighbors to help one another. “We want them to know that business is open, our neighborhood is open, and everyone is welcome here, and to just be mindful of how the virus actually works,” Singh tells King 5. “It’s not a race-based virus.”

What can be done to help Chinatown businesses?

Steven Chen, who leads Boston’s Chinatown Business Association and owns a bakery and restaurant called Great Taste, also compares the current situation to the 2003 SARS virus outbreak in Asia. Then, as now, customers stopped coming to Boston’s Chinatown — until Boston’s mayor eventually staged a publicity tour of the neighborhood. A similar effort from public officials could help again, Chen suggests.

Civic leaders in places like San Francisco have gone to some lengths to reassure residents. SF’s mayor and other public officials, as is customary, participated in the city’s Lunar New Year parade, urging patrons to return to Chinatown. “We need to make sure we don’t overreact,” Dr. Grant Colfax, San Francisco’s director of Public Health, told NBC Bay Area. Despite these efforts, though, this year’s parade was reportedly less well-attended than usual.

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