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Amid coronavirus panic, Chinese restaurants in the US are emptier than ever

Many Chinese restaurants across the country have been hit hard by what one New York City Council member describes as "racist fear-mongering."
/ Source: TODAY

Every year, Helen Ng looks forward to Chinese New Year celebrations. This year, however, the owner of the restaurant Amazing 66 in New York City's Chinatown was forced to lay off several employees and cut hours from other staff members' usual schedules.

"Our business has slid down at least 50-60%," Ng told TODAY Food.

The reason for this relatively sudden slump? Ng said she believes fears over the novel coronavirus sweeping across the country have turned people against Chinese-owned businesses.

Sadly, she's not the only restaurateur who has been impacted by the outbreak which, so far, has claimed the lives of more than 4,000 people around the world. However Ng, like many other Chinese restaurateurs, began noticing a big decrease in late January, weeks before hundreds of people in the U.S. were even diagnosed with the disease. Business for supermarkets and big-box retailers might be picking up, but it's been slowing down significantly for many businesses across America's Chinatowns.

According to Yelp data provided to TODAY, three of the six worst days for Chinese restaurant searches in the U.S. over the past 12 months occurred in February. Since Jan. 31, Chinese restaurants' share of "connections" which include phone calls, orders placed and reviews posted, have fallen about 20% below their usual level.

Jing Wetzel, the owner of Zheng Café in Seattle who was born in Wuhan, China, told The Seattle Times last week that business has been so bad she's discussed closing the restaurant. Jimmy Chan, owner of Bite of Asia in Bethesda, Maryland, says he's lost about $1,000 a day since Jan. 15.

"I immediately had to let go of two employees," Chan told TODAY. Chan said many of the customers who are still coming in are from the nearby Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and the National Institutes of Health.

Dr. Shira Doron is an infectious disease physician at Tufts Medical Center, which also services Boston's Chinatown.

"Not only am I not worried about eating the food in Chinatown, it’s what I request these days for every catered gathering," said the doctor.

While it's possible to contract COVID-19 by eating food handled by an infected person, the risk is extremely small. "Given the scarcity of flights from China over the last few weeks, it’s highly unlikely that anyone you come in contact with in Chinatown has been to China recently," added Doron.

The virus is far more likely to be transmitted via droplets that enter the nose or eyes. "(Coronavirus) doesn't appear to stay alive for long outside the body and swallowing it is probably not an effective way to get sick," explained Doron.

Still, facts and figures haven't stopped the rise of xenophobia towards those of Asian descent, especially in major cities.

“Sadly, we’ve been seeing Asian New Yorkers and small businesses punished for the anxieties caused by the coronavirus," New York City council member Margaret S. Chin told TODAY.

Chin, who launched the "Show Some Love for Chinatown" campaign last month with fellow city council member Carlina Rivera, is also encouraging the public to "denounce racist fear-mongering."

“The prejudice displayed toward the shops and restaurants in Chinatown must stop immediately," she said. "The risk to New Yorkers of contracting COVID-19 remains low, and this disease knows no borders, creed or class."

As the outbreak continues to rise, however, it seems likely that some Chinese restaurants will have to adapt if business continues to stall.

Some Chinese restaurants are adding new delivery services or offering frozen versions of their meals. Others are offering big discounts.

One restaurant has resorted to a surprising tactic to help reassure patrons that everyone in its restaurant isn't suffering from a fever-inducing illness.

"We were greeted by a gloved staffer who informed us that he had to take our temperatures," Kat De Angelis told TODAY about her recent dinner at Sichuan Impression in Tustin, California.

Before seating De Angelis and her husband, the host scanned their foreheads with a thermometer gun. The restaurant did not have many patrons.

A coronavirus warning sign posted in the window of Sichuan Impression in Tustin, California
A coronavirus notice posted in the window of Sichuan Impression, a Chinese restaurant in Tustin, California, advises potential patrons that waitstaff will be taking their temperature before allowing them to dine. Kat De Angelis

As of this week, Sichuan Impression, which has multiple locations in the Los Angeles area, is still taking the temperatures of potential customers before seating them.

Some patrons, on the other hand, are doing their best to promote and patronize struggling Chinese restaurants.

According to the Yelp data provided to TODAY, many reviews mentioning coronavirus encourage readers to visit their local Chinese restaurants.

On social media, people are posting photos with hashtags like #DinewithThem, #IWillEatwithYou and #SupportChinatown when visiting Chinese establishments.

There is hope outside of big cities, too. In smaller towns that don't have large populations, many restaurants or major international ports of entry, many Chinese restaurants are reporting that it's "business as usual."

"Things haven't been slow for us, but I think it's because we're in the middle of America," a manager at China Buffet in Sikeston, Missouri, told TODAY.

Cathy Ball, who has worked as a server at Peking Gardens West in Great Falls, Montana, said they've been just as busy as ever. Oriental House in Greenville, South Carolina, even opened a new location recently.

"We are still getting the same loyal customers," said Oriental House manager Jane Pak.

As for Ng, it may be a while until she can rehire the employees she had to lay off. In the meantime, however, there's something she wants diners to know.

"Our restaurant has taken steps to ensure protection for both our customers and staffs by following strict sanitizing guidelines and hygiene," said Ng. "Use caution but you can come out to enjoy good food."