The coronavirus reached a startling milestone Sunday when the death toll, which is now over 900 people, surpassed that of the SARS crisis in 2002. But its economic effects have been felt across the world for weeks as misconceptions about the virus — and stereotypes about Chinese food and culinary traditions — have led many people to stop frequenting Chinese businesses, including restaurants in Boston’s historic Chinatown.
In a Feb. 7 report, Chinatown business owners told WBUR’s Adrian Ma that the number of restaurant customers has considerably diminished after the first case of coronavirus in Massachusetts was confirmed.
“It’s completely empty,” Xuehua Gong, co-owner of Gourmet Dumpling House, told WBUR. “We still have business, but compared to before, it has really gone down a lot.”
Great Taste owner Steven Chen told Ma that local business owners are worried.
“If I have no business, I have to lay off some employees, right?” Chen said. “If I have no business, I can’t pay rent.”
Chen also cited the increase in surgical masks being used around Chinatown as a source of unease for many potential customers.
The news prompted Bob Luz, president and chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, to release a statement Friday evening:
“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.”
The World Health Organization has declared the coronavirus, which was first reported in Wuhan, China, on Dec. 31, a global health emergency. But the respiratory virus is less lethal than the flu, which has already killed at least 10,000 people in the United States this season. There has been no evidence to indicate that spending time in Chinatown or eating at Chinese restaurants will increase your chances of contracting the coronavirus, officials said.
“There is no community-level circulation of novel coronavirus in Massachusetts or anywhere in the U.S.,” said Dr. Catherine Brown, state epidemiologist at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. “Therefore, there is no reason to avoid any public activities at this time.”
Caitlin McLaughlin, spokesperson for the Boston Public Health Commission, stressed that Chinatown does not pose a unique threat in contracting the virus.
“We understand there is a lot of fear and uncertainty about this worldwide outbreak,” McLaughlin said. “We want to stress that, although the risk to the general public is low, anyone can get this virus and become sick. The chances of contracting novel coronavirus are as low in Chinatown as in any other part of the city.”
The best way to show your support for Chinatown — and all of Boston’s Chinese restaurants — is with your wallet. Peruse our guide to some of the neighborhood’s top eateries, including Peach Farm, Dumpling Cafe, Gene’s Chinese Flatbread, and Winsor Dim Sum Café. Pay a visit to any one of these 45 reader-recommended restaurants sporting excellent dumplings. Get to know these restaurant owners and chefs who are working at some of Boston’s top Chinese spots. And extend your patronage to other parts of the city with a growing concentration of Chinese restaurants, like Watertown, where these two Sichuan restaurants are churning out excellent, fiery Chinese food.
Have you eaten in Boston’s Chinatown lately? Share some of your favorite restaurants and dishes from the neighborhood in the comments below.