NEW YORK (AP) – In major U.S. cities, Asian American businesses are seeing a remarkable decline in customers as fear about the viral outbreak from China spreads. City and health officials are trying to staunch the financial bleeding through information campaigns and personal visits to shops and restaurants, emphasizing that, with just over a dozen confirmed cases in the entire country, there is no reason to avoid them.
Business owners, some of whom have seen their customer traffic cut by more than half, are anxiously waiting for things to return to normal.
Nom Wah Tea Parlor, the oldest restaurant in Manhattan’s Chinatown, has seen a 40% drop in business over the past three weeks, said manager Vincent Tang, whose cousin Wilson Tang took over the restaurant from his father. Normally, the restaurant fills up at lunchtime.
But during a recent weekday, nearly half the tables were empty, although it was at least busier than many of its lesser-known neighbors.
“We’re lucky to have loyal customers,” said Tang, sitting near an empty row of green stools that he used to swing around in as a child. “Usually at this time we are packed and there is a line outside.”
Customers at Nom Wah said they were perplexed that others were staying away.
The virus has sickened tens of thousands of people, mostly in China. Fifteen people have been confirmed to be infected in the U.S., all but of two of them people who recently traveled from China.
Vegetarian Dim Sum House has been a fixture in Manhattan’s Chinatown for 23 years, but suddenly, owner Frankie Chen said he will not be able to make his rent this month.
Chen said sales have plunged 70% over the last two weeks at his no-frills restaurant. Three couples trickled in for lunch on a recent weekday.
Normally, Chen said he gets up to 30 customers for lunch. At dinnertime, his narrow restaurant is usually packed with about 70 diners.
These days, he gets about four.
Chen has sent some of his staff on vacation to cut costs. Under the circumstances, he will ask his landlord to forgive a 5% late fee normally charged.
The crisis has alarmed New York City officials and business leaders, who have launched a campaign to lure people back to hard-hit communities in Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn.
“Chinatown is bleeding,” said Wellington Chen, executive chairman of the Chinatown Partnership, a local business and community group. “This thing is thousands of miles away. This fear is really out of proportion.”
New York City is home to more than half a million Chinese Americans, the biggest population of any U.S. city. Some New Yorkers of Chinese descent are frustrated at being made to feel like foreigners because of a disease outbreak that feels as far away to them as any other resident.
With no confirmed cases of the virus in New York City, officials and politicians are trying to drive home the point that there is no reason to avoid any neighborhood, with many eating at Chinese restaurants and tweeting out photos under the hashtags #supportchinatown.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, the situation is dire enough that Sunny Wong’s family is considering temporarily closing one of the four restaurants they own in Oakland Chinatown.
Even some of his friends and patrons have told him about hearing of untrue rumors of people getting sick at one of his restaurants.
“People just are clueless. They hear stories and rumors and they just don’t really look for the facts in a situation,” said Wong, adding that he has had to cut back hours for his workers.
Carl Chan, president of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, said business owners have reported a drop of roughly 50% to 75% in business. The chamber is planning a Chinese New Year celebration, with Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf encouraging residents to patronize Chinatown restaurants.