New York City’s Chinatown is typically a bustling hub for locals and tourists alike, an economic center fueled by hundreds of independent shops selling everything from cellphones to steaming plates of shu mai.
But recently, the streets of Chinatown’s corner of downtown Manhattan have been quieter. Fewer tour groups are walking along the streets, fewer people are going to the neighborhood’s most famous restaurants. Even some locals seem hesitant to go out to their favorite spots. Though Wuhan is nearly 7,500 miles (12,000km) from New York City, and there have been just a handful of confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the city of New York, Chinatown business owners say their restaurant and shops are taking hits over fears of the virus.
“We laid off about 40% of our staff to maintain the business because we’re getting less profit,” said David Ching, owner of Yin Ji Chang Fen, the sole New York outlet of a popular rice noodle roll chain in Guangzhou, China.
Though the restaurant was packed to the brim with customers when it opened in September, the number of patrons dropped off by about 40% once news of the virus spread, Ching said. Before the coronavirus fears Yin Ji Chang Fen had just a few tables open for weekday lunch. But Ching said it was about half of what they would usually get before fears over the virus started. “It’s been slow,” he said.
Just down the street from Yin Ji Chang Fen, Julia Chang was the sole waitress taking orders at Julia Tea & Dim Sum House, the restaurant that bears her name. Business has been down by about 20%, forcing her and her co-owners to cut staff. “Before we put a notice for hiring [on the window], and now I have to take it off,” Chang said. “People may be scared to come to Chinatown – it’s understandable.”
Though they declined to speak on the record since their managers were not in at the time, multiple employees at restaurants throughout New York’s Chinatown said coronavirus fears has resulted in a noticeable decline in business. “It’s one word: terrible,” one employee at a restaurant said.
The decline in business in Chinatown coincides with an uptick in xenophobic attacks against people of Asian descent around the world. In Los Angeles, a woman said a man directed a rant about the coronavirus toward her. “I’m not even Chinese … He’s really attacking me because I look a certain way.”
Though Chinatown is most known for its dining spots, other types of businesses have taken hits. Gina Ma, owner of a souvenir and gift shop said that, while the winter months are typically slower, only one or two customers are stopping in around lunchtime. “On our customers’ side, we definitely understand certain parts. We cannot blame [them], but it hurts right now.”
Ma noted that people who come in the store are often wearing masks, and she’s scared that even a sneeze from a cold or allergy would turn people away. “People think it’s the Chinese… We’re living here in America, but people think that Chinatown has lots of Chinese, so they’re scared.”
“There is concern about the cumulative effect on this community. It’s like a boxer, how many blows can you take before you go under?” said Wellington Chen, executive director of the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corporation, which helped to coordinate the campaign. “The ultimate answer lies with public support. It is so important.”
Earlier this month, US officials said they evacuated 195 Americans from Wuhan, all of whom would be placed under a 14-day quarantine at an air reserve based in California. A temporary travel restriction was also put on foreign nationals who travelled to China. US citizens who recently traveled to China faced screening and are required to undertake 14 days of self-screening.
Chen has spent the last few weeks trying to assuage the public that fears over coronavirus are unfounded since the virus has not yet made it to New York City. “Someone asked very sincerely: ‘In the fish store next door, is the fish safe to eat?’ That fish is not from China, that fish is from our local Atlantic Ocean,” Chen said. “It’s generally that degree of unnecessary fear.”
Chen said that he remains hopeful that people will start to realize they have nothing to worry about when visiting New York City’s Chinatown versus anywhere else in the city.
“We just believe that you should have no fear [of Chinatown],” Chen said. “The biggest fear you should have is whether you have room for dessert.”