Coronavirus scare threatens Sunset Park businesses and fuels anti-Chinese sentiment, residents say

Community leaders say that Chinese businesses are suffering amid the coronavirus scare, since many locals are afraid to leave their house.
Zoe Freilich

The widespread fears over the deadly coronavirus has sparked concerns within Brooklyn’s Chinese communities — threatening immigrant businesses and leaving many residents homebound, according to some residents. 

“Before anyone dies, the businesses are going to die,” said Kenneth Chiu, a Sunset Park resident and the president of the New York City Asian-American Democratic Club. 

The respiratory illness, which experts believe originated in bats, spreads from person-to-person and produces symptoms with varying severity — such a fever, coughing, and shortness of breath, according to the Center for Disease Control. 

The virus first surfaced in humans during an outbreak in China’s Wuhan City late last year, and has since infected more than 20,000 people worldwide, and killed over 400 people thus far — with most victims residing in Asia, and only 11 confirmed cases in the United States, according to a Bloomberg report.

Two patients in New York City who recently traveled from mainland China are being tested for the virus, and are currently hospitalized in Queens, according to City Hall. 

However, leaders in Brooklyn’s Chinese communities say that misinformation about the illness has sewn excessive fear among Chinese residents — and took the spirit out of the Lunar New Year holiday season. 

“This should be a busy holiday season. Around this time of year, businesses are doing banquets for the new year,” Chiu said. “But people just want to be safe rather than sorry and it has affected catering halls, restaurants, eateries.” 

Businesses in Flushing, Queens have been particularly hard-hit, according to Chiu, who claimed that revenue has dropped by “half” as locals are scared to even leave their homes. 

Last week, reps with the Flushing Town Hall canceled the venue’s famous Lunar New Year Chinese Temple Bazaar out of fear of the illness. 

Stores in Sunset Park, which boasts a large Chinese population, have suffered smaller losses because the area’s residents mostly emigrated from southern China — hundreds of miles from where the disease originated, according to Chiu.

“Sunset Park seems a lot better,” he said. “But it seems that business is 25 to 30 percent slower.”

Outside the community, fear of the virus has fueled racial misperceptions of Chinese residents — such as the idea that Chinese people who wear medical face masks may have contracted the virus themselves, community leaders said.

“Some people are trying to target Chinese people who wear the mask,” said Ansen Tang, an employee at the United Chinese Association in Gravesend. “They just wear them to prevent getting sick…And now there’s a fear that if you wear a mask that you people will give you a look or stay away from you.”

Sunset Park schools have also had alarmist reactions to the virus — sending Chinese students home for wearing face masks or showing faint signs of illness, Chiu said. 

“I hear parents complain to me that the school or a teacher sent their kid home because they’re wearing a mask, or they sneeze, or show minor signs of illness,” he explained. 

Rather than panic, Chiu encouraged Brooklynites to go about their routine and maintain good hygiene. 

“My advice is to keep calm, stay informed, and follow best practices,” he said.