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Novel Coronavirus Fears Cut Chinatown Restaurant Business by 50 Percent

Flight shutdowns, rumors, and racism are all to blame

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Restaurants in Oakland and San Francisco Chinatowns say their business has been slashed by 50 percent or more, a decrease caused by the one-two punch of novel coronavirus panic and a precipitous drop in tourism from China.

It’s a problem that’s hitting Chinese restaurants across the country, Eater’s national site reports, with business decreases of 50 to 70 percent in New York’s Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn Chinatowns. Similar drops have been reported in Chinese restaurants in Boston and Houston.

All these drops have been linked to fears of a new coronavirus technically know as “2019-nCoV,” though the colloquial “coronavirus” is frequently used to describe the current outbreak. As of midday on Wednesday, the illness has sickened over 45,000 people and killed over 1,000, CNN reports. Most of those victims are in mainland China, and only 13 cases have been reported in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control say. Of those, seven have been reported in California, and while UCSF is treating two patients who contracted the illness elsewhere, no cases have been reported in San Francisco.

In an effort to stop the spread of the disease, flights from mainland China have been suspended, SFist reported last week, a shutdown that’s expected to continue until the end of April. According to the the San Francisco Travel Association, SF sees 517,700 visitors from China a year, and the country is the city’s second-largest source of international tourism (Mexico is first). The flight stoppage means that tourists from China, which the Chron reports spend an annual $1.3 billion during visits to the Bay Area, are nowhere to be found.

In addition to the sudden drop in tourism are vaguer worries that by visiting areas popular with Chinese people, one might increase one’s chances of contracting the disease. There was the case of San Francisco’s AA Bakery and Cafe, for example, which was hit with false rumors via WhatsApp that a worker was infected with novel coronavirus.

People shouldn’t listen to reports spread via social media or from unfamiliar sources, Dr. Grant Colfax, the director of the San Francisco Department of Public Health, says. “In the event that there would be a case in San Francisco, you would hear it from the health department first,” he tells KPIX.

And yet, people continue to stay away from Chinatown restaurants in droves. Speaking with KPIX, Sunny Wong, the owner of Oakland Chinatown restaurant Shooting Star Cafe, says they’ve lost between 50 and 75 percent of their business. “Besides the locals not coming in,” Wong says, “a lot of people are trying to avoid Chinatown in general and avoid Asians, I would say.”

That last bit, the “avoid Asians” part, is of particular interest to Eater’s Jenny G. Zhang. In a report from late last month, she noted that the current outbreak has revived “old strains of racism and xenophobia that frame Chinese people as uncivilized, barbaric ‘others’ who bring with them dangerous, contagious diseases.”

It’s those retrograde ideas, says Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory co-owner Kevin Chan, that have cut business by about 70 percent. “People are just scared. They don’t come,” Chan said of his bakery, which used to see about 500 people a day. But now, Chan says, the streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown are deserted. “Look at this,” Chan says of the area’s empty restaurants. “I think it’s not normal. I guess people think of the virus and they think of Chinatown as the one that carries the virus.”