As fears of coronavirus — more formally known as 2019-nCoV —hit the United States, it’s not uncommon to see people wearing medical masks on public transportation or panic-posting news alerts on social media. But despite the fact that New York City has zero confirmed cases of the deadly virus, the health scare has hit one particular demographic the most: Chinese-American businesses. Just as Flushing, Queens canceled its annual Lunar New Year’s parade “out of an abundance of caution,” the rest of New York City seems to be following suit.
In fact, Wellington Chen, executive director of the Chinatown Partnership said during a press conference in New York City’s Chinatown on Wednesday that he is pleading with New Yorkers to “show some love” to Chinatown restaurants, especially as Valentine’s Day approaches. On average, business for New York City Chinatown restaurants has dropped by 40%, while some restaurants are seeing a 70-80% loss in sales since the Lunar New Year celebrations began at the end of January.
“The fear and prejudice have to stop today,” New York City Councilmember Carlina Rivera said during the press conference. “There are a lot of things [going around] on social media that are at best not rooted in science, and at worst, offensive, demeaning and racist. We need to encourage people to pay attention to the facts.”
Throughout February so far, Chinatown restaurants have been plagued with empty tables, with many restaurants seating only one or two parties every night. Chi Vy Ngo, general manager at Bo Ky, a Chinese and Vietnamese noodle spot in New York City’s Chinatown, said that his business has dropped by 60-70% over the past week. Thus far he has not had to lay off any employees, but he does not know how long the ghost town effect can last without damaging his restaurant in the long-term.
“My business is a mom and pop shop, so this affects us personally,” Vy Ngo said.
Of course, New York City is only a microcosm of what is happening in Chinese-American communities around the country. Restaurants in Oakland and San Francisco’s Chinatowns have seen business dwindle by 50%, according to Eater. Seven out of the 13 cases diagnosed in the United States have been found in California, although none have been contracted in San Francisco. Worldwide, the death toll connected to the virus just reached 1,100, soaring past the fatalities caused by the SARS epidemic in 2003.
Much like the business owners in New York, the misinformation swirling on social media and real-world effects on businesses are intrinsically tied to racist fears:
“Besides the locals not coming in,” Sunny Wong, the owner of Oakland Chinatown restaurant Shooting Star Café told Eater. “A lot of people are trying to avoid Chinatown in general and avoid Asians, I would say.”
The sinopohibic attitudes likely originate with the heavily circulated theories that tied the origins of the coronavirus outbreak to a Wuhan wet market that sells live livestock and “exotic” wildlife, even though the earliest known case had no connection to the market and the disease itself passes from person to person, rather than though food, according to a report released by per-reviewed scientific journal The Lancet. Although there are legitimate health and food safety concerns associated with these wet markets in China, fearmongering and spreading rumors has only led to the furthering of stereotypes, Eater reports.
Whether Chinatown tourists and restaurant-goers are staying home for health reasons, due to racist rumors, or both, the coronavirus outbreak will likely have a major impact on Chinese tourism worldwide. According to the Associated Press, Tourism Economics predicts a 28% drop in Chinese tourism in 2020, as a direct result of the virus.
The best way to combat the bad effects on business? Keep encouraging visitors:
“There’s only one word we can use and it’s trust: trust the city, trust the health department, and trust the CDC,” Vy Ngo said. “Please come out and show some support.”
Contact Joanna Fantozzi at [email protected]
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