People walking through New York’s Chinatown.
Peter Tu’s daily coffee run in Flushing, NY, is quite different from what it used to be. Having served as executive director of the Flushing Chinese Business Association for the past 12 years, he has spent many mornings being greeted with smiles and pleasantries from thriving local business owners. Coronavirus has changed that.
“Everywhere I go, shop owners are now asking if I can please help pay their rent,” Tu, a 64-year-old Chinese-American, says. “Businesses are really hurting.”
Unfounded and largely racist fears are the culprit. An estimated 1,000 tables have been canceled at restaurants in Manhattan’s Chinatown neighborhood since the beginning of the outbreak. Gregg Bishop, New York City commissioner for the Department of Small Business Services, told Forbes that the city’s nine Chinatowns have seen revenues drop by 40% to 60%, figures previously reported by CNBC, despite there not being any confirmed cases in New York (and only 29 in the U.S.).
New York’s Chinatowns are not the only ones being hit hard by the fallout of coronavirus. Since the outbreak began, San Francisco’s Chinatown neighborhood has seen foot traffic decline by an estimated 50%, according to the Chinese Merchants Association. Earlier this month, a popular Bay Area bakery was the subject of a rumor that alleged one of its workers had been infected with the virus.
Since January 31, Chinese restaurants’ across the U.S. have seen a 10% decline in Yelp delivery orders, reviews and searches, with three of the six worst days for searches having been in February. “Interest in coronavirus started rising in late January, peaked around the end of the month, and remains high,” says Yelp data science editor Carl Bialik. While there have been more mentions of the virus in reviews of Chinatown restaurants than in that of other types of eateries, “many reviews mentioning coronavirus encourage readers to visit their local Chinese restaurants without fear.”
Lack of transparency and widespread misinformation have only exacerbated the situation. Since the World Health Organization has declared the fast-moving coronavirus a global health emergency on December 31, China has already reported 72,000 confirmed cases with a death toll nearing 1,800. A tiny fraction of those cases are in the U.S. “The flu has killed [at least 14,000] people nationwide and you don’t see this type of fear,” Bishop says. The Lunar New Year parade in Flushing, Queens—which has twice-hosted NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio and former Mayor Mike Bloomberg, and typically expects a 100,000-person turnout for the fireworks—was canceled for the first time since the celebration’s inception 25 years ago.
“Lunar New Year is like the Super Bowl for Chinatown,” says Bishop, noting that nearly 30% of the neighborhood’s annual revenues are typically earned during the holiday. “We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost business.”