Chicago's Chinatown takes a hit as coronavirus fears keep customers away. Business is down as much as 50% at some restaurants
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Chicago's Chinatown takes a hit as coronavirus fears keep customers away. Business is down as much as 50% at some restaurants

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CHICAGO - The epicenter of global coronavirus outbreak is 7,000 miles away, but fear of the illness has turned Chicago's Chinatown into a veritable ghost town, with customers staying away in droves, leaving some restaurants and businesses nearly empty during lunchtime this week.

It was, at first glance, business as usual, with people mostly eschewing masks as they straggled in and out of restaurants, emerged from the Park To Shop with groceries and went to the bank. But the bustle was missing, with wide-open sidewalks and plazas casting a surreal pall over the popular Near South Side neighborhood and tourist attraction.

Chinatown's two-level retail courtyard, home to an eclectic mix of stores and restaurants, resembled a vacant movie set Tuesday. Diners were few and far between, with lunchtime traffic down as much as 50% at some restaurants since news of the coronavirus outbreak spread - along with infections - from a live meat market in Wuhan, China, late last year.

"People may be a little bit scared, but Chinatown is OK," said Tommy Wong, 50, manager of Lao Sze Chuan, a Chinatown staple.

On Tuesday, two diners quietly ate lunch in the otherwise empty restaurant. A typical weekday lunch crowd would have 20 to 30 customers, Wong said.

The novel respiratory virus, which causes pneumonia in some patients, is spread primarily through coughing and sneezing. There have been more than 43,000 diagnosed cases of coronavirus in China, with the death toll there surpassing 1,000 on Tuesday, according to the World Health Organization. Coronavirus has been diagnosed in 24 countries, with 13 confirmed cases but no deaths in the U.S..

There have been two confirmed cases in the Chicago area - a husband who was infected by his wife after she returned from a visit to Wuhan. It was the first known case of person-to-person coronavirus transmission in the U.S., according to the CDC. The couple has since been released from a hospital in northwest suburban Hoffman Estates.

The coronavirus, which health officials recently named COVID-19, has killed more people in mainland China than the 2003 SARS epidemic, fueling not only humanitarian concerns, but worries about a prolonged drag on the global economy. The cruise industry has been hit particularly hard, as some passengers have remained stranded on ships struck with the virus.

Those worries are hitting home in Chinatown, a neighborhood rich in restaurants, small stores and other attractions that cater to both residents and visitors.

"It's been tough," said Pat Jan, manager of Judy's Cosmetics, which has seen a steep decline in traffic among its mostly Asian clientele.

Judy's Cosmetics, which specializes in Japanese Shiseido products, was empty during the normally busy lunchtime Tuesday, where walk-in customers from nearby restaurants often stop in to browse. Jan said fear that the illness is in the Chinatown community is keeping customers away from her store, which she has managed for more than 20 years.

"Business is slow for all Chinatown businesses because people are afraid, and you can't blame them," she said.

The falloff in business was not as bad during the SARS epidemic, Jan said, in part because customers saw China as more isolated when the short-lived outbreak occurred 17 years ago.

Economists echo the point. China has grown from about 4% of the world's GDP in 2003 to 17% today. Meanwhile, the country has become the world's largest outbound tourism market, with more than 2.8 million Chinese tourists visiting the U.S. last year, up more than tenfold since the turn of the century, according to the National Travel and Tourism Office.

Staff may have outnumbered diners at Chinatown's Joy Yee restaurant Tuesday, with only a few tables occupied during lunchtime. Vincent Li, 43, manager of the restaurant for five years, said business has been cut in half since the coronavirus outbreak began.

Joy Yee, which started in Evanston in 1994 and opened the Chinatown location two years later, has a small Chicago-area chain that includes restaurants in Naperville and Tinley Park. All of the locations have seen sales declines over coronavirus fears, Li said.

"Even a place that is not affected, people are still concerned about it," Li said. "They are like, 'Chinese food, no let's go to an American or Italian place.'"

While Li said he was not concerned about contracting coronavirus, he acknowledged that his employees were a "little bit" worried, although none donned masks at work. The few customers patronizing his restaurant during lunch Tuesday did not wear masks.

Mabel Moy, owner of a travel agency and president of the Chicago Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, said coronavirus fears are widespread in the U.S., with Chinatown businesses in other cities experiencing sharp downturns as well. While weekends are busier than weekdays, traffic in Chicago's Chinatown is down across the board, Moy said.

Concerns about the virus are overblown, she said.

"The coronavirus does not exist within the community," Moy said. "Everybody goes to work, everybody opens their business, everybody walks down the street like normal. The local people, we go out to eat every day, we go to lunch, we go dim sum, we go to the grocery store as usual. But the only thing we need is the visitors, and the suburban people and others to come."

Not everyone is afraid to visit Chinatown. Katie Stack, 23, of Wicker Park, came there Tuesday with her friend, Ben Touhey, 23, of Naperville, for one reason - the dim sum at MingHing Cuisine.

Walking off the meal on their way to the Field Museum, the pair strolled the streets of Chinatown without masks or fear of contracting coronavirus.

"I'm not worried about it," Stack said. "I feel like there's probably going to be coronavirus anywhere, so for someone to just avoid Chinatown seems a little off to me."

Touhey likewise dismissed fears of coronavirus with a fatalistic yet pragmatic approach.

"If it's going to be somewhere and I'm going to catch it, I'm going to catch it," Touhey said. "That's just how it is. I don't think there's much I could do to prevent it anyway."

Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com

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