New year, new fears
City’s Chinese community adjusts holiday plans as coronavirus spreads
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.