UPDATE, March 16: Governor Charlie Baker has announced a statewide shutdown of all bars and restaurants from March 17 to April 17. Takeout and delivery will be allowed, but customers will not be able to dine in.
As of February 19, 2019, the United States has only had 15 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus (2019-nCoV) that was first reported in Wuhan, China. Despite the relatively low incidence of the illness in the US, restaurants in Chinatowns across the country have experienced major downturns in business — by as much as 50 percent in San Francisco and up to 70 percent in New York’s three main Chinatowns. The situation is no different here in Boston.
Reasons for the panic are manifold, and include travel bans (which limit tourism spending), misinformation, and racism. Eater’s Jenny G. Zhang recently wrote that “the outbreak has had a decidedly dehumanizing effect, reigniting old strains of racism and xenophobia that frame Chinese people as uncivilized, barbaric ‘others’ who bring with them dangerous, contagious diseases.”
“Chinatowns across the board are seeing the same thing, from San Francisco to New York City,” the Chinatown Main Street Boston board of directors told Eater in a statement via email. “I think the media played a huge role in the public panic, [and therefore] the downturn.”
Eater spoke with Chinatown restaurateur Brian Moy, who owns Shojo and Ruckus, and whose family owns China Pearl, which is a giant of the Chinatown dim sum scene and one of the neighborhood’s most iconic restaurants.
“Numbers at Shojo and Ruckus haven’t been affected, fortunately,” Moy told Eater. “But China Pearl is more traditionally Chinese, and its numbers have been greatly affected.”
Moy cited other neighborhood restaurants such as New Jumbo Seafood, Peach Farm, Winsor Dim Sum Café, and others among those that have been negatively impacted by the panic surrounding the novel coronavirus.
“I’ve been talking with other restaurant owners around Chinatown, especially owners of more traditionally Chinese restaurants — restaurants you associate with Chinese cuisine — and those are the ones that have been most negatively impacted [by the panic].”
So far, Massachusetts has only reported one confirmed case of the virus. Experts say that the flu poses a far greater risk to people in the US than the novel coronavirus. One expert recently said that there is “virtually zero chance of coming across someone who has this infection” in Boston. And yet people are still panicking; people are still not dining out in Chinatown.
“Overall in Chinatown, what we noticed initially is that it’s much easier to find parking on the street, and the lots are less than half-full,” Moy said. “We all joke that this is the best time to come out and dine in Chinatown. It’s not too busy, you can find parking, and you can eat the same great food.”
While most of the media coverage has focused on the bottom lines of restaurants and restaurant owners in Chinatowns across the country, Moy also wants to stress the impact the panic and subsequent business downturn has had on restaurant employees.
“There’s a trickle down that hurts restaurant workers,” Moy told Eater. “I spoke with a waiter who usually spends $30 a day to park. It’s a lot, but you usually make really good money and it’s worth the $30. But now he’s not even making enough to cover the parking — he’s losing money by coming to work.”
“I feel the worst for new businesses that opened within the last year,” Moy continued, citing the costs that go into opening a new restaurant and staying above water in the first few months, which can be lean. “This sort of thing happening in the first few months of operating can make a business fail.”
Moy told Eater that support from politicians like Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and Boston City Councilors Michelle Wu and Ed Flynn — each of whom have made a point to visit Chinatown for a meal in the wake of the panic — has been appreciated.
“The outreach of politicians has helped — it’s great to know the people you support come back to the community and are helpful when you need them to be,” said Moy. He said the support reminds him of the way former Boston Mayor Thomas Menino reacted when restaurants in Chinatown experienced a similar downturn during the SARS panic in 2003.
“When SARS happened, Chinatown was in worse condition; it was a ghost town,” Moy continued. “Menino worked with the community, did a tour of Chinatown, had dinner with his family at China Pearl, looked at the [news] cameras and said ‘My family and I are here, we’re eating the food, it’s safe.’ It was helpful then.”
The Chinatown Main Street Boston board of directors echoed Moy’s sentiments.
“The mayor has helped Chinatown pull together some fun ways to get people back to the district, and he has also assured the public that it is safe [to eat here].”
President and CEO of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association Bob Luz recently released a statement in support of restaurants in Chinatown. In it, he cites a legal mandate for every restaurant to adhere to the state’s health code laws.
We have already begun to see Chinese and Chinese-American restaurants in Massachusetts report a sudden and swift decline in business due to inaccurate correlations drawn between patronizing these establishments and the coronavirus. It cannot be overstated that all restaurants regardless of the ethnic origin of its owners, or cuisine are required to operate at the same high health standards required by the state of Massachusetts. It is imperative to understand that while anxieties may be high, we should not target any one group, or operate in a climate of fear that is not based on facts. I ask the good people of Massachusetts to continue to patronize these restaurants across the state and show your support.
After explaining the difficulties his family’s restaurant and other restaurants are dealing with, Moy finished by wondering why the same people who are afraid of eating in Chinatown aren’t equally as afraid to travel through busy transportation hubs like South Station.
“South Station is right down the street, and commuters are still traveling,” said Moy. He then spoke about the fact that protective masks have been selling out of every hardware store and pharmacy, but that he hardly ever sees anyone wearing one.
“If you’re so scared, what are you waiting for?”
The bottom line is that you shouldn’t be scared at all. What you should do is go eat in Chinatown. It’s the city’s best food neighborhood, and it needs your business now more than ever.