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'It's Completely Empty': Coronavirus Fears Take Toll On Chinatown Businesses03:23
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On a recent afternoon in Chinatown, it was not uncommon to see people wearing face masks. (Adrian Ma/WBUR)
On a recent afternoon in Chinatown, it was not uncommon to see people wearing face masks. (Adrian Ma/WBUR)

If you happened to swing by the New Golden Gate Seafood restaurant in Boston's Chinatown this week, you might've been confronted with the worst sound you can possibly hear in the restaurant business: silence.

On a recent weeknight, not a single customer was in sight. The only movement in the dining room came from the lobsters crawling inside a tank against the wall.

"After Chinese New Year, normally we are very busy," said May Deng, the restaurant's cashier. "Right now, there should be at least five tables."

But instead, Deng walked through a dining room where only a server sat at a table, his head burrowed in his arms, apparently sleeping.

"There are no customers, so there’s no work to do," Deng said.

Other Chinatown business owners said they are experiencing the same thing. The outbreak of the new coronavirus that continues to spread in China is starting to have an economic impact here. After news last week that a Boston man who had recently traveled from Wuhan, China was the state’s first confirmed case of coronavirus, the normal flow of customers has evaporated.

"It's completely empty," said Xuehua Gong, co-owner of Gourmet Dumpling House, one of many of the restaurants along Chinatown's Beach Street. "We still have business, but compared to before, it has really gone down a lot."

Across the street at the restaurant and bakery Great Taste, owner Steven Chen has also noticed a major slowdown. Chen, who heads the Chinatown Business Association, said local business owners are on edge.

"People [are] worried," Chen said. "If I have no business, I have to lay off some employees, right? If I have no business, I can't pay rent."

The sudden drop in customers is an ominous echo of 2003, when a different coronavirus known as SARS broke out in Asia. As a result, Chen said, a lot of people stopped coming to Chinatown. It wasn't until then-Mayor Tom Menino took a publicity tour around the neighborhood that the crowds began to return.

This time, it might take a similar intervention to bring people back, Chen said, because many seem afraid. He pointed to the increasing use of face masks in public.

"I don't like seeing all these people wear the masks around town," he said. "Because then you think it's not safe. You're scaring people."

The Chinatown gate. (Adrian Ma/WBUR)
The Chinatown gate. (Adrian Ma/WBUR)

Face masks, which some local pharmacies have had trouble keeping in stock, are not necessarily effective at preventing the wearer from catching a respiratory illness, according to Dr. Jennifer Lo, medical director for the Boston Public Health Commission.

"There has been a lot of fear about the novel coronavirus, and we need to be aware of these fears and not let them get the best of us," she said, adding that the risk of catching the new coronavirus is just as low in Chinatown as it is elsewhere in the city.

The flu, Lo emphasized, is a much bigger concern.

Currently, there have been only about a dozen coronavirus cases confirmed in the U.S., including the one in Massachusetts. According to state health officials, the patient has been isolated at home and is recovering well. By contrast, there have thousands of cases of flu in Massachusetts in the past four months. And nationally, the federal Centers for Disease Control estimate there have been over 10,000 deaths linked to the flu since October.

May Deng, the cashier at New Golden Gate in Chinatown, hopes customers get the message.

"I hope everybody can come back to eat," Deng said, surveying the empty dining room. "It's a very hard, very difficult time right now."

This segment aired on February 7, 2020.

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Adrian Ma is a reporter for WBUR's Bostonomix team.

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