Mar 18, 2020 - Economy & Business

Chinatowns felt the coronavirus pain even before wider shutdowns

A shop in Chinatown.
People walk the streets of Soho and Chinatown wearing face masks in London. Photo: Alberto Pezzali/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Even before cities began shutting down restaurants and bars, Chinatown neighborhoods around the world were among the first to see a significant slowdown in business — mostly due to consumers' misguided fears about a virus that originated thousands of miles away.

Why it matters: "There's a second virus, which is xenophobia," Wellington Chen, executive director of the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corporation in New York City, told WNYC last week.

  • Based on trash cans — which are WiFi-connected and can sense garbage volume — as a gauge for activity, Chen estimates foot traffic was down 40%–80%.

Details: In Houston, a false rumor in January about an infected worker in Chinatown caused business to plunge by more than 50%, the owners of Mala Sichuan Bistro told the Houston Chronicle. Members of the kitchen staff have already been laid off.

  • Restaurants in Oakland's Chinatown have cut back hours or temporarily shut down. One owner told San Francisco's CBS affiliate that business was down 90% at dinnertime.
  • Businesses that are staying open barely make enough to pay their utility bills, the station reported.

The big picture: Chinatown businesses felt the pain early, and now the rapid economic slowdown is a serious threat to small businesses and restaurants everywhere.

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