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Living in fear and closing early: Rise in anti-Asian violence strains NYC restaurants

COVID-19 has taken a terrible toll on the restaurant industry, but Asian restaurants are facing an additional obstacle: racism.
End The Violence Toward Asians Rally
A woman holds a sign that reads "love our people like u love our food" at the End The Violence Towards Asians rally in Washington Square Park on Feb. 20, 2021 in New York.Dia Dipasupil / Getty Images
/ Source: CNBC

COVID-19 has taken a terrible toll on the restaurant industry, which has been financially devastated as the pandemic forced restrictions on indoor dining and pushed Americans to eat more at home.

As of January, more than 1,000 restaurants in New York City had closed since the start of pandemic lockdowns in March 2020, according to Eater.

But Asian restaurants are facing an additional obstacle: racism.

Since the pandemic began, there’s been a slew of racist incidents targeting the Asian American community, from some officials referring to the virus as “kung flu” to the recent uptick in unprovoked attacks in major cities like San Francisco and New York.

Last week, a 56-year old Malaysian immigrant was on his way home from work when an individual pushed him to the ground and repeatedly punched him in the face at a subway station in New York.

That’s translating into fear for Asian restaurant owners who are concerned about the safety and security of their establishments and their employees.

Living in fear

Sakura Yagi, chief operating officer of T.I.C. Restaurant Group, a collection of nine Japanese restaurants in New York City, is worried about her dad, who is the owner, her employees and even herself, amid growing anti-Asian sentiment.

“I was worried first and foremost about people older than me, including my father as well as my nanny,” Yagi told CNBC in an interview, adding that she encourages them to go home early and offers to call a cab for them instead of taking a subway.

“Especially with the rise in hate crimes against Asians, I will say that getting on the subway is more terrifying these days, in comparison to being worried about getting the coronavirus,” said Yagi, adding that she gave up her habit of listening to music on her commute in order to be more aware of her surroundings at night.

Yagi heard of an individual who threw firecrackers into the indoor dining area of a Japanese restaurant located on the same block as one of her own in the East Village.

“It’s really hard to say if it was racially motivated because it isn’t so blatantly obvious, but at the same time I do think that there is a prevalence of people thinking that it’s easy to take advantage of Asian businesses in general,” Yagi said.

It’s also difficult to define the toll of racism on Asian businesses because of the overall impact of the pandemic. T.I.C. had 14 restaurant locations in the city before COVID-19, but has been forced to shutter five of them since March.

Closing early

Jason Wang, CEO of popular New York chain Xi’an Famous Foods, told CNBC in an interview that he’s noticed anti-Asian attacks happening around the city since last summer.

Wang began closing his New York locations early, at 8:30 p.m., to ensure the safety of his employees as they commuted to and from work via public transportation.

He told The New York Times in February that two of his employees had been punched in the face on their commutes in the past few months.

“Because of those [incidents], we were proactive in closing down [early] but unfortunately these crimes are happening in broad daylight so it’s not something that could be necessarily prevented,” Wang said.

Before the pandemic, the New York restaurant chain boasted 14 locations. Now, due to the financial strain from COVID-19, it only has eight.

Hate crimes on the rise

Public officials are working with the community.

“So many Asian Americans literally live in fear and are afraid to leave their homes, because they don’t know what might happen to them,” Rep. Grace Meng, who represents New York City’s 6th Congressional District, said during a news conference last month.

Nonprofit and advocacy group the Asian American Federation, which last year set up a bias reporting form on its website to report hate crimes in the tri-state area, has received more than 500 reports so far.

The organization’s executive director, Jo-Ann Yoo, believes the number undercounts the reality and breadth of anti-Asian sentiment.

“We are scared, outraged and devastated by the hate incidents against Asian New Yorkers, many who are front-line workers who helped anchor the city at a time when we were needed the most. Yet, we continue to be violently treated as outsiders in the communities we help to sustain,” said Yoo.

The group organized a rally against anti-Asian hate crimes last month, which drew more than 300 participants, according to CBS News.

The New York Police Department formed the Asian Hate Crimes Task Force last year to combat the increasing rate of Asian American hate crimes amid the pandemic in New York City. The task force is comprised of 25 Asian American detectives who speak a collective total of 11 different languages to best serve the diverse Asian communities in the city.

“We’re here to guarantee there’s a strong appropriate response to the hate that’s impacting our city,” said Stewart Loo, deputy inspector of the task force.

Since the pandemic, 28 incidents of COVID-related hate crimes against Asians have been reported, Loo said. Before the pandemic in 2019, there were three anti-Asian hate crimes in New York City.

According to NYPD data, there were 20 arrests on charges of anti-Asian hate crimes in New York City last year compared with just one arrest in the same category the prior year.

Other public officials have voiced their support.

New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang tweeted “Proud to stand with so many others today against anti-Asian violence at the rally organized by @AAFederation. There is no place for hate in New York,” after attending the rally in February.

“An attack on Asian New Yorkers is an attack on all of us,” said New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio during a news conference last month.

Enough is enough

Frustrated by the public’s initial silence amid the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, 28-year-old restaurateur Eric Sze launched the #EnoughIsEnough campaign last month.

T.I.C. Restaurant Group is one of 22 industry partners involved in the campaign, which donates meals and funding to Heart of Dinner, Send Chinatown Love and Welcome to Chinatown, in addition to other organizations.

The campaign initially set a goal of raising $10,000 toward communities in need. In just 12 hours, the campaign’s donation page received a total of $25,000 and now boasts more than $75,000.

“The idea was just to create a voice that unifies some of the people in the restaurant industry and showing people that no matter how small your voice is, if you are willing to speak out, people are listening and I think we’ve done that,” Sze told CNBC in an interview. His efforts come after revenue at his Taiwanese restaurant 886 on St. Marks Place in New York dropped 75% year over year from 2019 to 2020.

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