A Chinese language school is facing a loss of attendance. Asian-American markets are worried about keeping jasmine rice in stock. Some Chinese restaurants are anticipating a drop in business as the novel coronavirus that emerged in Wuhan, China, arrives in Minnesota.
“Definitely we need to prepare for that,” said Gaoxiang Yang, owner of the Legendary Spice restaurant serving Sichuan cuisine on the University of Minnesota campus.
Asian-Americans in Minnesota are feeling the repercussions of the fear surrounding the coronavirus, and grappling with how to respond. Most of the local effects so far have been limited to worries by those who have family back in China or how to get supplies for shops and restaurants. But Chinatowns in major coastal centers have seen reduced traffic and some people of East Asian descent have reported discrimination, including two Hmong men who say they were turned away at an Indiana hotel over suspicions that they were from China and could be carrying the virus.
Yang is aware that business could be affected if the coronavirus spreads in Minnesota, based on what he hears from friends who own Chinese restaurants in New York and Los Angeles that are seeing large declines in customers. His establishment is doing fine for now, but he’s already stocked six months of dry goods in case there’s any issue with suppliers in big coastal cities more affected by the virus.
The state Department of Health said it has been reaching out to Asian-American partner organizations in Minnesota for weeks through an e-mail listserv, largely to connect them with accurate information that they can share with their communities.
“We have anecdotally heard of some instances of stigma or bias from individuals in the community,” Andrea Ahneman, a department spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. “We have tried to put out some messaging through social media and other channels reminding people to not assume someone is sick just because they are Asian-American and to not discriminate against people.”
Some people of Asian descent have faced discrimination and accusations that they are carrying the illness. A Chinese-Singaporean man recently alleged that he was attacked in London by men who said they didn’t want his coronavirus in their country, and a man on the Los Angeles subway said that Chinese people were responsible for bringing diseases while going on a tirade against a Thai-American woman.
The Minnesota Department of Human Rights has not received any complaints about Asian-American bias yet. But Chou Moua has heard from three fellow Hmong Americans that young adults made disparaging comments about them on public transit in north Minneapolis and Frogtown, saying they wanted to avoid sitting next to them because of coronavirus.
And he’s heard of false schemes circulating about pills that cure coronavirus, which do not exist.
“There’s a lot of misinformation in the community and there are folks who may want to take advantage of the misinformation,” said Moua, who has previously lived in China and is a community activist and part of the Hmong Outreach Network.
Yang Wong, owner of China Restaurant in Roseville, said business has slowed down.
“All of a sudden it’s just like a drop,” she said. “It’s not much we can do, right? The only wish is the virus can go away soon.”
Ben Ng, owner of Bill’s Garden Chinese Gourmet in south Minneapolis, said the coronavirus hasn’t had a big impact yet, though he has friends who own restaurants in the Chinatowns of Vancouver and New York that have gone from long lines of customers to no wait times.
“I think it still will be a big impact in the next couple months,” Ng said.
Some Asian-American markets have reported a surge in customers this week stocking up on rice, in fear that the supply chain could be compromised by the virus.
“We’ve just been getting a really big rush right now,” said Joe Ku, manager of Dragon Star Oriental Foods. “A lot of customers are coming in to buy rice and noodles … definitely because they’re scared of the virus and multiple issues with shipping.”
The St. Paul store caters to people of Hmong, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai and Cambodian descent and gets its supplies from Chicago, New York and California. Dragon Star Oriental Foods has been ordering extra amounts to keep up, but getting enough on time has been difficult. It has raised the price for a 50-pound bag of jasmine rice from $45 to $55.
Ne Dao, manager of Ha Tien Super Market, said two pallets of rice were gone in just an hour Wednesday. The store’s California wholesaler, which gets its goods from China, has raised prices for Ha Tien. Now the St. Paul shop has to raise prices for customers.
“Our suppliers are pretty short,” Dao said.
Some Minnesotans have been sending supplies the other way, as well. The Minnesota International Chinese School, which offers language classes to more than 300 students, has been raising money to buy medical equipment to send to hospitals in Wuhan. But school attendance also has been down among Chinese-American families worried about the virus.
In late January, as concerns over the coronavirus were spreading, calligraphy teacher Chuansheng Wan of Hopkins flew back from his native China and decided to stay home for two weeks, in line with the school’s quarantine policy for any students and teachers who had traveled there.
“I think we should be very cautious but not be panicked,” said Wan, who passed his time at home with calligraphy and books.
Shasha Bao, who sends her two sons to the school, noted that her parents and in-laws remain quarantined back in their native Wuhan. She and her husband try to check on them daily.
“It’s scary to us,” said Bao, who lives in Edina. “My husband and I can’t be there to help them.”
She and some of the other parents at school are not sure if they’ll be able to make their vacations to China this summer. Mark Morrison, of Plymouth, had planned to go to China with his family in May for his father-in-law’s 90th birthday but now they’re considering an alternate trip to the Grand Canyon.
On Saturday, the school was distributing face masks and hand sanitizer for families who had ordered them.
Principal Melody Zhou has asked her children several times if they’ve felt discriminated against at school because of the virus and they’ve assured her, “Mom, don’t panic — nobody’s even talking about it.”
In the local Chinese-American community, “everybody is really taking it seriously, but we just tell people to … come back to school as normal and come back to your normal life,” Zhou said.