New year, new fears

City’s Chi­nese com­mu­nity ad­justs hol­i­day plans as coro­n­avirus spreads

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - BY GRACE WONG

On the eve of Lu­nar New Year, a time meant for cel­e­bra­tion with fam­ily and ar­guably the most im­por­tant Chi­nese hol­i­day, many Chi­na­town res­i­dents found them­selves in­stead stand­ing in line to buy bright blue boxes of face masks, seek­ing to pro­tect them­selves from the coro­n­avirus after the first case was con­firmed in Chicago.

By early af­ter­noon Fri­day, the lone Wal­greens in Chi­na­town was sold out. Mean­while, some events cel­e­brat­ing Lu­nar New Year were can­celed, and res­tau­rant own­ers in the com­mu­nity com­plained of wan­ing business.

Lu­nar New Year, cel­e­brated from Fri­day to Feb. 4, marks one of the busiest travel sea­sons among Chi­nese, as it’s part of the cul­tural tra­di­tion to re­turn to one’s home­town and re­unite with fam­ily. But this year, many plans have come to a halt be­cause of the coro­n­avirus out­break in China that has be­gun to spread to the U.S.

On Satur­day, tourists and area res­i­dents walked mostly mask-free, and busi­nesses were open like any typ­i­cal day in Jan­uary. De­spite some fes­tive

dec­o­ra­tions, ac­tiv­ity in the area was light due to poor weather and coro­n­avirus con­cerns.

Paulynette Acosta walked in and out of stores while shop­ping along South Went­worth Av­enue, hold­ing a fruit smoothie in one hand and wear­ing a med­i­cal face mask with a dec­o­ra­tive de­sign that cov­ered her mouth.

“I just want to be cau­tious,” Acosta said, re­fer­ring to news re­ports of the virus hav­ing been de­tected in a Chicago res­i­dent who re­turned from Wuhan on Jan. 13. “It’s like there’s some­thing new ev­ery year.”

From res­tau­rant reser­va­tion can­cel­la­tions to trav­el­ers es­chew­ing trips to the home­land, many Chi­nese Chicagoans have taken a cau­tious ap­proach to this year’s fes­tiv­i­ties, opt­ing to stay home and avoid crowds to limit op­por­tu­ni­ties for ex­po­sure. The iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of Illi­nois’ first coro­n­avirus case Fri­day un­der­scored the risk for some.

The Chicago woman had re­turned from car­ing for her sick fa­ther in China ear­lier this month, and was di­ag­nosed with the re­s­pi­ra­tory coro­n­avirus that has sick­ened 1,975 in China and killed at least 56 there, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cials. The woman’s con­di­tion had been sta­bi­lized, and she was “clin­i­cally do­ing well,” of­fi­cials said.

In Chicago’s Chi­na­town on Fri­day morn­ing, it seemed like the only in­di­ca­tions that it was Lu­nar New Year’s Eve were the red lanterns, wet from the un­re­lent­ing driz­zle, sway­ing be­tween trees on Cer­mak Road.

The usu­ally bustling neigh­bor­hood seemed con­cen­trated at the sole Wal­greens in the area, on Cer­mak near Archer Av­enue. Boxes of sur­gi­cal-grade face masks sat on the counter near the cash regis­ter, and peo­ple lined up, buy­ing them as quickly as the em­ploy­ees could stock them. But the real prize, 3M N95 masks, which customers fa­vor for pro­tec­tion against viruses, had been sold out within two hours that morn­ing. All 400 of them.

A woman who worked at the Wal­greens said Fri­day that an­other ship­ment of 600 masks was due to ar­rive later that day, hope­fully in time for Lu­nar New Year cel­e­bra­tions. But be­fore 2 p.m. the store was sold out of all face masks, all types. There were no signs alert­ing customers of the next ship­ment, nor were any signs posted at other busi­nesses that ref­er­enced the virus.

Wear­ing a black dis­pos­able face mask, Hai Xia, 25, who lives in Prairie Shores, came to the Chi­na­town Wal­greens in hopes of find­ing the 3M N95 masks. His friend had told him via WeChat that Costco and Tar­get were al­ready sold out, so he was hop­ing he’d get lucky by ven­tur­ing to Chi­na­town. But he came up empty-handed once again. It was his sec­ond try for the day, and at that point, he was ready to try his luck on­line, but he said he couldn’t find what he was look­ing for.

“We just want to pro­tect our life,” he said in Man­darin.

With their hoods up and um­brel­las ex­tended, pa­trons of Park To Shop in Chi­na­town hur­ried from their car to the store for last-minute gro­ceries Fri­day. Many of them, in­clud­ing small chil­dren bun­dled up in puffy winter jack­ets, wore face masks as they browsed the aisles of pro­duce and red Lu­nar New Year boxes full of tra­di­tional cook­ies and can­dies.

“I don’t want to go back (to China),” Qi­nan Zhao, who was wear­ing a face mask while load­ing some green onions into the bas­ket on her bi­cy­cle, said in Man­darin.

“It’s very scary. But I’m sure the Chi­nese will find a cure very quickly.”

Huan Wang, vice pres­i­dent of the As­so­ci­a­tion of Chi­nese-Amer­i­can Sci­en­tists and En­gi­neers and a restau­ra­teur, said he’s seen a de­crease in the num­ber of peo­ple din­ing out in his es­tab­lish­ments. The health scare com­bined with the weather has made business dif­fi­cult.

Many pa­trons have opted to or­der de­liv­ery on­line in­stead of din­ing in, a ser­vice that takes a cut out of Wang’s over­all prof­its, he said.

Still, Wang was not obliv­i­ous to peo­ple’s con­cerns about health risks. To help pro­tect his staff and pa­trons, his restau­rants are also tak­ing ex­tra pre­cau­tions to san­i­tize ta­bles and uten­sils, us­ing ex­tra-strong dis­in­fec­tants for clean­ing, he said. Also, they are post­ing no­tices in the restau­rants en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to be con­sid­er­ate of other din­ers by cov­er­ing their mouths when cough­ing or sneez­ing.

Wang said some of his friends who own restau­rants in Chi­na­town have seen can­cel­la­tions for reser­va­tions booked for Lu­nar New Year, in­clud­ing a group of 80 peo­ple who can­celed on Thurs­day. The reser­va­tions are hard to fill so close to the hol­i­day, he said. Be­cause fes­tiv­i­ties typ­i­cally be­gin around din­ner­time, the can­cel­la­tions have dealt a heavy blow to the small busi­nesses.

Among the events can­celed Fri­day was the Fes­ti­val of Spring, a huge show hosted by the Chi­nese Amer­i­can As­so­ci­a­tion of Greater Chicago fea­tur­ing mu­sic and dance per­for­mances to cel­e­brate the Lu­nar New Year. Still, an­other large cel­e­bra­tion, the Chi­na­town Chi­nese Lu­nar New Year Pa­rade, is on for Feb. 2, said Ma­bel Moy, pres­i­dent of the Chicago Chi­na­town Cham­ber of Com­merce.

She said many peo­ple who were from South­ern China seemed to be less wor­ried than their North­ern Chi­nese coun­ter­parts, and her Can­tonese friends are still mak­ing din­ner reser­va­tions.

Videos of how to cover your mouth when you cough and how to take pre­ven­tive mea­sures against the virus are sweep­ing across WeChat groups, both lo­cally and in­ter­na­tion­ally. Wang said his fam­ily, many of whom work in the med­i­cal field, have been ex­tra dili­gent about shar­ing tips with fam­ily, friends and on­line groups that they’re a part of.

“I think peo­ple re­ally un­der­es­ti­mate the po­ten­tial im­pact of cough­ing,” he said. “They think they’re healthy so they don’t think they need to do any­thing dif­fer­ent.”

Many on­line groups are also putting to­gether pack­ages of sup­plies to send to Wuhan, the city where the out­break is con­cen­trated in China, Wang said. And var­i­ous com­mu­nity or­ga­ni­za­tions have held in­for­ma­tional sem­i­nars to help ed­u­cate peo­ple on how to pro­tect them­selves and how to help.

While pre­ven­tive mea­sures are nec­es­sary, Wang said there’s no need for panic. And there’s cer­tainly no need for peo­ple to be afraid to visit the Chi­na­town neigh­bor­hood in Chicago.

“Many of us haven’t been back to China in years,” he said with a laugh.


Hai Xia, right, leaves the Wal­greens in Chi­na­town empty-handed Fri­day after hop­ing to buy a spe­cific brand of sur­gi­cal face masks.


Zhe­jiang Opera The­atre’s Yang Jiong per­forms at the Chicago Cul­tural Cen­ter on Fri­day to mark the Chi­nese New Year.


A worker cleans a res­tau­rant ta­ble in Chi­na­town Fri­day. Fewer peo­ple are din­ing out.

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