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Coronavirus Affects Bottom Line For Businesses In U.S. Chinatowns


The coronavirus outbreak roiling China right now is creating turmoil for businesses and not just those in China. As U.S. cases of the virus make news, many businessowners in U.S. Chinatowns say they are seeing fewer customers. Adrian Ma from member station WBUR has more.

ADRIAN MA, BYLINE: If you happen to swing by New Golden Gate Seafood restaurant in Boston's Chinatown, you might be confronted with the worst sound you could possibly hear in the restaurant biz - silence. On this weeknight, not a single customer is in sight.

MAY DENG: After Chinese New Year, normally we are really busy.

MA: May Deng is the cashier here.

DENG: Right now, there should be at least around five table or something like that - at least.

MA: But instead, Deng walks through a dining room that's empty, that is except for a server who's sitting at a table with his head in his arms and appears to be sleeping.

Is he awake?

DENG: (Laughter).

MA: (Speaking Mandarin).

DENG: (Speaking Mandarin).

MA: She says, no customers, so there's no work to do, right?

DENG: So you see, that's really, really slow.

MA: Other shops on the block also say the normal flow of customers has evaporated, especially after recent news that a Boston man who traveled from Wuhan, China, was the state's first confirmed case of coronavirus. And similar scenes are playing out in Chinatowns in San Francisco, Houston and New York. Fear of the new virus is a drag on business. Across the street, things are a little better at a restaurant and bakery called Great Taste. There's a small crowd and, among them, a guy named Steven Chen.

Do you come here a lot?

STEVEN CHEN: Yeah, this is my restaurant.

MA: Oh, this is your - (laughter). Oh, it's your restaurant.

On top of owning the place, Chen also heads up Boston's Chinatown Business Association.

CHEN: The owners worry. People is worried because affecting everyone. Like, if I have no business, I have to lay off some employee, right?

MA: Chen's worried about history repeating. In 2003 when a different coronavirus called SARS broke out in Asia, a lot of people stopped coming to the neighborhood. The mayor had to hold a publicity lunch to urge people to come back. And this time, Chen says he's lobbying the city to make a similar show of faith because a lot of people, Chinese and non-Chinese, they seem afraid. He says, just look around town at all the people wearing face masks.

CHEN: No, I don't like that because then you think it's not safe, stay home, right? You scaring the people.

JENNIFER LO: There has been a lot of fear around the novel coronavirus. And we need to be aware of these fears and not let them get the best of us.

MA: That's Dr. Jennifer Lo, medical director for the Boston Public Health Commission

LO: Right now in Boston, the risk of getting the flu is significantly higher.

MA: And, she says, the flu is everywhere. You could get it at work, at the store, at school. If you have kids, you could get it from them.

So we should be afraid of kids, is that what you're saying?

LO: (Laughter) No, that is not what I'm saying. I think...

MA: Just kidding, the children are our future. The point is, if you live in the U.S. right now, your chance of getting the coronavirus is extremely low whether you're in a Chinatown or not. May Deng at New Golden Gate restaurant hopes customers hear that message and start coming back.

DENG: So it's really difficult time.

MA: Oh, I hope that turns around for you.

DENG: I hope everybody can come back to eat and then enjoy (laughter).

MA: If they don't, there may be a lot more slow nights, like this one. For NPR News, I'm Adrian Ma in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Ma
Adrian Ma covers work, money and other "business-ish" for NPR's daily economics podcast The Indicator from Planet Money.