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Fear, prejudice contribute to pandemic slump in San Francisco Chinatown

KPIX

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    SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) — Chinatown is one of the most colorful and historic districts in San Francisco but, despite a relatively low infection rate, the area is fighting for its life as fear of the pandemic is causing longtime businesses to fail.

“It’s desolate and there’s nothing here anymore,” said area resident Mark Lobell.

Grant Avenue on a Sunday morning would normally be jammed with shoppers and diners but, these days, it’s quiet and empty. Steven Lee co-owns the Sam Wo restaurant which has been operating in Chinatown for more than a century.

“You see? This is the result of a pandemic,” Lee said as he climbed stairs to the dark, second-floor dining room. The tables were empty and a restaurant that once had people lined up down the block is reduced to take-out.

“We’re down to maybe like three, three and a half people from 23 (employees). Three shifts down to three people,” Lee said.

It’s the same story all over town but, in Chinatown, it started early — in February before the lockdown began.

“The restaurants here were empty but, if you went through the tunnel or to North Beach, they were all full,” Lee said. “So it seemed like there was something going on, that they were scared.”

The fear and blame for the pandemic landed squarely on Chinese-owned businesses. While racism is nothing new, 90-year-old Stanley Gee said he’s never seen it have this kind of effect.

“Chinatown is the district that is worse than any other places,” Gee said. “I don’t care or worry about the restaurants. I’m worried about my people here. It’s the saddest thing!”

Only five people are left to run the Far East restaurant, down from 50. Manager Kathy Lee is hoping a new parklet they built will help.

“It’s still tough. We’re still struggling,” she said.

The district is doing what it can. The garage now charges just $8 for all-day parking and three blocks of Grant Avenue have been closed to traffic to welcome pedestrians and outdoor dining. At the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, owner Kevin Chan says the only thing that will really fix the problem is to get tourists back.

“We don’t know when it’s gonna stop,” Chan said. “It’s just day-by-day.”

Each day Chinatown loses more of its businesses and San Francisco, more of its soul. Merchants say they need customers’ support and more help from the city if they’re going to survive until a vaccine can return life to normal.

“I’m one of the elders here and I’ve never in my life seen things like this happen to us,” Gee said.

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