KEY POINTS

  • Some Chinese-owned businesses in New York City have lost up to 80% of their sales since reports of the virus first emerged.
  • Restaurants across Chinese neighbirhoods have reported sales plunges and have had to reduce work hours or temporarily shut down
  • Flushing, Queens and Sunset Park, Brooklyn have large Chinese communities, in addition to Manhattan's Chinatown

Chinese-owned businesses in New York City have suffered huge losses due to fears and backlash over the ongoing coronavirus epidemic.

Anecdotal reports strongly indicate that tourists as well as New Yorkers are avoiding Chinatowns and Chinese-owned establishments, including restaurants and banquet halls.

Wellington Z. Chen, the executive director of Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corporation, a group that advocates for Chinatown in Lower Manhattan, estimated that businesses in the neighborhood have seen sales plunge by 30% to 80% over the past month.

"There are two major viruses going on: one is the coronavirus itself and then there's the second, what they call an ugly cousin [racism], that is causing more harm than the actual disease," Chen said. "They [customers] are afraid to come in for a haircut. They are afraid to go to the dentist. We have seen a steady decline and [businesses] are telling me it's a like bloodbath."

Chen said the current crisis has hurt worse than the fallout from the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, outbreak; the 2009 Influenza A virus [H1N1] epidemic; and the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.

"After 9/11, people were not afraid to come back to eat," said Chen. "There was this American spirit that we're going to be fearless, we're going to rebuild. This time around, there's this fear factor that is being blown out of proportion."

Chinatown businesses in other parts of the city, including Flushing in Queens and Sunset Park in Brooklyn, have also suffered sharp declines in sales and foot traffic.

The New York Department of Small Business Services also received reports of taxi drivers refusing to go to Chinese neighborhoods – further exacerbating the woes of Chinese businesses.

The Flushing Chinese Business Association reported a 40% drop on average in business for its local members.

Connie Zhang, president & CEO of the Royal Queen Banquet Hall in Flushing said she has lost up to 80% of her business since January. In response, Zhang has been forced to cut costs, while avoiding layoffs.

"People who were working six days are now working three or four days," Zhang said. "It's very bad."

“[The coronavirus has] been terrible for business,” said Thomas Lo, co-owner of Spy C Cuisine of Forest Hills, Queens, which has seen its sales plunge in half over the month of February. “We’ve had a steady increase in business since we opened, and then coronavirus hit. None of our food comes from China, but that doesn’t matter to diners. I don’t know what motivated the scare. A lot of it is misinformation.”

Lo added: “It’s killed a lot of restaurants and others are just getting by, trying to survive. A lot of the large Chinese restaurants in Flushing are now closed -- for renovations, they say, but it’s unlikely they’ll reopen. Chinatown was also really hit. It’s a lot slower. All you have to do is walk around to notice it.”

Claudia Leo, marketing director at Jing Fong, an iconic restaurant in Chinatown in Manhattan, said its business plunged by 50% in February.

“We can’t lay off anyone but we are reducing hours so people [who used to work] six days a week might now be working three or four days a week,” Leo said

Truman Lam, the owner of Jing Fong, which was founded in 1972, warned: “For a business that had been around for 40 years, if this drags on for a few months, who knows if we can survive? We have some cash and we can make some cuts, but the scary thing is, there is no end in sight. The chefs are trying to cut down on staff but there is no clarity. It is hard to plan when you don’t know what will happen.”

Johnny Lin, owner of Four Four South Village, a Taiwanese beef noodle restaurant in Flushing, is also enduring losses.

“Flushing has been hugely impacted by the coronavirus,” Lin said. “Business has been going down dramatically thanks to rumors and fear-mongering. We hope that the community and the government can encourage people to support local businesses, and of course Flushing, by alleviating the concerns people have about the virus.”

Flushing Chamber of Commerce’s executive director John Choe said: “All businesses are suffering. It’s devastating the local economy from the stigma around the coronavirus. There’s a sense that Flushing is being racially profiled in some ways and unfairly scapegoated for this epidemic public health issue.”

Sunset Park in Brooklyn, now the largest Chinese community in New York City, has seen several of its famous dim sum restaurants close down.

Randy Peers, president of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, warned that some restaurants that have closed may find it hard to easily reopen.

“It’s not like you can just close, do a deep clean and reopen,” Peers said. “There’s other considerations. If people are advised to avoid large gatherings, these restaurants are at a disadvantage.”

Analysts wonder if these businesses will ever come back to full strength.

"In certain neighborhoods, we're going to see a significant economic impact," said Gregg Bishop, commissioner of the city's Department of Small Business Services. "If this goes on for the next three to five months, certain businesses, I'm sure, are going to have to furlough some of their staff."

The drop in sales at Chinese restaurants could also spill over into other sectors of New York’s economy.

"We're also seeing an impact on the suppliers," Bishop said. "The fish market is seeing a decline in sales. The other food providers who provide food to those businesses are also seeing a decline in sales."

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has condemned racial harassment of Asian Americans and the attendant declines in Chinese enterprises.

"To be clear, there is zero evidence that people of Asian descent bear any additional responsibility for the transmission of the coronavirus," he said.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has also expressed support for Chinatown by visiting its restaurants.

The travel ban on China has also hurt tourism in New York’ various Chinatowns, especially its hotels.

"Chinese customers are normally the highest spenders," Chen said. "They spend the largest amount and stay the longest amount out of the travel groups. We have also seen many of the Asian Americans that have already paid [for hotels and charter buses] cancel out of their own fear."

Many Chinese-owned businesses may have to close for good.

Zhang of Flushing noted that some other Chinese restaurant owners have been forced to temporarily shut down.

"We don't want to shut down because no one knows how long this is going to go on," Zhang said. "We're trying to keep the restaurant open. It's really hard for us."

Councilmember Peter Koo of Queens said the city government should lower taxes on these businesses.

“Some restaurants have even closed. They have no business and even the ones that are open have more staff than diners. These are big spaces with huge overhead,” he said.

The future for Chinese businesses in the city will be painful, said Whitney Hu, a local organizer in Sunset Park. “I know we’re going to see the long-term economic impacts of what that looks like, whether that’s some of our favorite restaurants not opening back up. It’s going to be a big economic hit,” she said.

Choe of Flushing summed up the situation.

"New York itself is suffering as a city, but I think communities like Flushing, because they are heavily immigrants and majority Asian, are suffering even more," he stated.

As of Sunday, New York City reported more than 300 coronavirus cases and five deaths.

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