Coronavirus: Restaurants struggle amid fears of outbreak


At Shabu House in Houston's Chinatown, Asian comfort food is on the menu, including hot pots of steaming soup filled with the customer's choice of meat and vegetables.

Since the coronavirus began to grab headlines, the restaurant has been at least half-empty. And Shabu House is not alone.

"Pretty much all the restaurants in our entire shopping plaza (are down) anywhere from 50% to 75%, depending on the day," says Debbie Chen, one of Shabu House's owners. "It's pretty challenging for all of us."

The new coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, has sickened tens of thousands, mostly in China, and caused at least 1,775 deaths. Businesses struggle amid fears of the outbreak, including restaurants in Chinatown neighborhoods across the USA.

At Yin Ji Chang Fen, a restaurant in Manhattan's Chinatown, business has dropped 30% to 40% since the first cases of coronavirus were reported near the start of the year.

The dip is noticeable "especially at lunchtime," manager Steve Ip says.

Not only has his restaurant lost business because fewer Chinese tourists visit the USA, he says, but Chinese students at colleges who used to crowd the eatery's tables are also missing.

"The airlines all canceled the flights," Ip says. "During the Chinese New Year, (the students) go back to China, and now they can't come back to school."

Coronavirus cases confirmed in seven states

In the USA, cases have been confirmed in seven states, and hundreds of people have been placed under quarantine.

Those who contracted the virus traveled from abroad or had contact with someone who did, and it is "not currently spreading in the community in the United States," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Still, fears about the illness have a ripple effect across industries and countries. The world's biggest mobile trade show was supposed to take place in Spain this month, but the event was canceled after tech giants such as Facebook, Sony and Amazon decided not to attend.

Delta, United and American airlines canceled flights to China in an effort to stop the spread of the virus. Airbnb allows some guests to cancel their reservations without charge if they were headed to areas affected by the outbreak. McDonald's and Starbucks shuttered hundreds of locations in China.

In Houston, customers have been scared away from some businesses.

"There are false rumors going around on social media," Chen says. "There was one rumor talking about one of the local grocery stores, that they'd discovered (the virus) there and ... business went down almost 80% immediately."

She chalks the reaction up to worry about the unknown and, perhaps in some cases, bigotry.

"If you listen to all the different news reports, people are scared," Chen says. "There may be some hints of xenophobia. ... But at the same time, I think that for some people, it might just be ignorance, fear, and there may be people putting things out without thinking about how it impacts working people."

Lawmakers, businesses try to stem fears

At the end of January, Rep. Al Green, D-Houston, held a news conference with community leaders and public health officials to reassure those who might be avoiding Chinatown businesses.

"We must not stoke any looming fears or stigmas surrounding this public health issue," Green said in a statement. "Houstonians should not be skeptical of traversing any parts of the city that they typically frequent due to this virus."

The restaurant industry as a whole has not seen a drop in customer visits since COVID-19 appeared, says David Portalatin, vice president and food industry adviser for the NPD Group, a market research company.

"I wouldn't be surprised if you're seeing some very isolated impacts" from the coronavirus on some businesses, Portalatin says.

Chen says the drop in customers at Shabu House is worse than what she experienced in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which devastated Houston in 2017.

She's just trying to keep all of her workers employed.

"I'm basically paying out of my own pocket to make sure my staff is ... able to make their bills, but I know not every restaurant is able to do that," Chen says. "I'm trying to hang on without letting anyone go."

Ip has had to cut back employees' shifts.

The restaurant used to be so busy, customers had to line up and wait for a table.

"Now,'' Ip says, "we're doing delivery.''

Follow Charisse Jones on Twitter @charissejones

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus: Restaurants suffer as wary customers stay away


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