SUNSET PARK — Sunset Park’s Chinatown’s main stretch along 8th Avenue in Brooklyn is typically bustling with shoppers and diners. But in the past month, local businesses say traffic has been slower than usual.
“Business has been down a little bit,” said a pharmacist, who remained anonymous, at Lin’s Pharmacy, located at 4311 8th Avenue. “Probably ever since the news broke.”
The news he was referring to is the outbreak of the coronavirus. Also known as COVID-19, the coronavirus outbreak began in the city of Wuhan in China almost two months ago in December. So far, the virus has infected over 75,000 people around China. But in New York City, there are zero confirmed cases. However, that hasn’t stopped misinformation from spreading and has led to some customers avoiding New York City’s many Chinatowns, including Sunset Park’s.
At a press conference about coronavirus and the effects on the Chinese community in New York City last week at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in Manhattan, officials stressed that there is no immediate threat of coronavirus in NYC.
“Suspected cases in NYC have all been cleared, and we don’t have any confirmed cases so far,” said Dr. Syra Madad, senior director of NYC Health+Hospitals special pathogens program.
She encouraged people to take all the normal precautions they take to avoid getting the flu, including, “washing your hands very often. If you’re sick, staying home. Staying away from those that are sick.”
At the same press conference, Wellington Chen of the Chinatown Partnership said he’s spoken with business owners in Manhattan’s Chinatown.
“It’s across the board,” Chen, whose organization partners with the Chinatown business improvement district to boost the profile of the neighborhood. “The fear is overtaking and blowing out of proportion.”
Back in Sunset Park, an employee of Pacificana Restaurant, located just off 8th Avenue at 813 55th Street, known for its dim sum and other Cantonese dishes, agreed with Chen’s statements.
“I think all the Asian community has been affected. The whole block has been down. Everybody’s worried it is so slow,” James Z, the employee of Pacificana told us. “There’s plenty of parking space on the whole [8th] avenue. Usually, you can’t find a parking space.”
They’ve also been monitoring their evening reservations, and closing if they don’t expect any large parties.
“We did that twice this week already,” Z said. “We closed Monday and Tuesday for dinner temporarily. Usually, there’s some type of reservation at night. If you have zero reservations, why stay open?”
The Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce held an event on Monday, February 24 at Park Asia restaurant at 6521 8th Avenue to discuss the fears of coronavirus and how they have affected business in the area. Representatives from the chamber were present, including board members who own small businesses and other community members.
“Business is suffering for sure. The restaurants clearly are one of the most visible forms of businesses that are seeing a decline. But grocery stores and other kinds of venues are seeing it as well,” Randy Peers, president and CEO of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce told Bklyner days after the event. “Brooklyn’s Chinatown isn’t just 8th Avenue anymore; it’s also Bensonhurst and Sheepshead Bay. The Chinese-American business community is an important part of Brooklyn’s ecosystem and it’s important for us to stand in solidarity and encourage people to continue to patronize these businesses.”
“And let’s face it, those mom-and-pop businesses are already facing many challenges, from online shopping, to regulations in the city,” Peers continued. “And you layer on this fear that’s not even manifested yet and it hits them even harder.”
One of the costly regulations that store owners need to comply with is the regulation on awnings and streetfront signs. According to Ahyoung Kim, the small business project manager of the Asian American Federation of New York, that’s another cost that can be a big challenge to Asian-American business owners.
“In 2018 in Sunset Park there was a sign that fell off of a building and with that the DOB started going on a blitz to make sure that the awnings are in compliance,” Kim told us. The coronavirus fears just add another stress to the local businesses.
“I really think the city and educational staff need to make sure that people are aware that [the coronavirus] is much bigger than just an issue for Chinatown and Asian communities, and it’s really a matter of time before it hits all of us,” Kim said. “So we really need to bond together and support each other.”
But the pharmacist at Lin’s doesn’t see it as that drastic of a situation yet. “It may just be a temporary issue,” he said. “[I’m] not worried about the future of the business yet.”
According to Wellington Chen, any way you slice it, for New York City’s Chinatowns, “this is going to take quite a long time for us to recover.”