In the midst of this year’s usually bustling Chinese new year celebration, there was something missing at the Peking Duck House restaurant in New York’s historic Chinatown: a queue.
“It’s been a drastic slowdown for us,” said Kenny Au, the host at a restaurant that typically features a waiting list and a crowd spilling out the door.
Behind him, the room full of elegantly set tables was mostly empty during the lunch hour on a Tuesday. “A lot of people are just scared and they don’t want to take the risk,” said Mr Au.
The restaurant’s patrons are staying away because they fear the spread of coronavirus. A recent outbreak of the new respiratory illness has convulsed Hubei, a province in central China. Coronavirus panic is now rippling through Chinese communities scattered around the world.
In lower Manhattan’s Chinatown, which dates back to the mid-19th century, the outbreak is squeezing local businesses on two fronts.
Beijing’s move to ban foreign travel for its citizens in an effort to contain the virus is depriving them of a steady stream of customers. At the same time, other tourists and even fellow New Yorkers appear skittish about visiting Chinatown — in spite of the fact there have not yet been any confirmed coronavirus cases in the city and authorities say the risk is low.
“Business has dropped a lot. For cell phones it’s OK, but for other things it’s maybe down 50 per cent,” Kenny Lee, the owner of a Cricket mobile phone store in the neighbourhood, estimated.
Mr Lee was particularly surprised that some people cancelled parties over the weekend during the new year celebrations — a time when the neighbourhood is typically bursting with revellers. “I’ve been here for 30 years and I’ve never seen that before,” he said.
In Flushing, a heavily Chinese section of the city’s borough of Queens that is, by some estimates, now the world’s largest Chinatown, residents are also reeling.
Bianca Ng, president of COTS Travel, a Flushing travel agency founded by her parents almost 30 years ago, said business had ground to a halt except for customers calling to cancel or reschedule their previous bookings to Asia.
“I would say business is down at least 50 per cent,” Ms Ng estimated, noting that a local wholesaler of Asian package tours was forced to close its doors last week after decades in business.
Travel companies are not the only ones affected. “When we leave work we walk past a lot of restaurants in Flushing, we can see there’s more staff than customers,” said Ms Ng, who is also the secretary of the Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce.
In an effort to restore confidence, Bill de Blasio, the New York City mayor, dined at a Flushing restaurant this week with local community leaders. Unfortunately, the visit garnered headlines for the mayor’s fumbling attempts to use chopsticks.
Across the country in San Francisco, the site of the US’s oldest Chinatown, one rental management company is refusing to collect cheques in person because of coronavirus worries. The company, Hogan and Vest, has gates across the front of the store and a sign telling people to drop cheques through a letter box.
“They’re spreading a lot of grief and pandemonium,” an official at the local chamber of commerce complained, noting that the language barrier was causing some confusion about the virus, particularly for older residents.
Still, the official did not see a big impact on business. Based on interviews with merchants, gloomy assessment are hardly uniform.
On a recent rainy afternoon in Manhattan’s Chinatown, there was the usual bustle in the narrow streets. A smattering of people were wearing protective masks, although such protective gear is also regularly donned to combat flu and other viruses.
Bing Lu, who works at a shop selling ornate chopsticks, did not sense panic. Authorities have been communicating about the coronavirus and the risks it presents in local Chinese-language media.
Still, he found business was sluggish. “People actually are staying home a little bit more,” he said.
Immigrant Chinese communities have weathered upheaval and disruption before. Part of what spurred Flushing’s growth, for example, was a flight from lower Manhattan after the devastation caused by the September 11 terror attacks.
Ms Ng, the travel agent, is hopeful that things will improve. In the meantime, she remains stoic. “You just have to handle this like every other thing New Yorkers handle,” she said.
At the Peking Duck House, Mr Au also forecast that, in time, the crowds would return and business would recover. “I think eventually it will pick up,” he said, then added: “Barring that we get an outbreak here. God forbid!”