Concerns over the coronavirus are affecting some Asian-owned businesses in Denver

A poll from the Colorado Asian Chamber of Commerce found Chinese restaurants are feeling the largest impact.
4 min. read
Wai Mo and a colleague roll sticky buns in the back of Pacific Ocean Marketplace, Feb. 25, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Several tables sat unused on a recent weekday at Star Kitchen, a dim sum and seafood restaurant on Federal Boulevard.

It was late afternoon, a bit after lunch but not quite dinner time. Restaurant manager Lisa Xu didn't seem worried about the lack of patrons at that moment. But over the past few weeks, she's noticed a decline in business, which she attributes to concerns over the coronavirus.

Xu, who is Chinese, said she's seen fewer Asian visitors in her restaurant since late January.

"She feels people are worried about going out to eat, especially for Asians," Xu said, speaking through an interpreter and her friend, Ruby Wong.

While not every business owner along Federal Boulevard Denverite spoke with was worried about the virus, the Center for Disease Control warned this week coronavirus will likely continue to spread throughout the U.S. after it was first detected in China.

Pacific Ocean Marketplace in Athmar Park, Feb. 25, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

As of Wednesday the CDC has confirmed at least 14 cases of the virus in the United States. State health officials said there are no cases in Colorado.

Colorado Asian Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Fran Campbell said after calling about a dozen Asian businesses in the metro area, the chamber learned there was a 30 to 40 percent drop in attendance in Chinese restaurants. Campbell said the information they got has been shared with Mayor Michael Hancock's and Gov. Jared Polis' offices.

Campbell said the drop has not necessarily affected Korean or Japanese restaurants.

"There have been some really ugly things said on Yelp about some of the restaurants," Campbell said. "We have been told, and have reported, that it's not just non-Asian patrons staying away; it's Asian and Chinese patrons as well."

Xu said she's been making sure the restaurant is clean and has reminded staff to keep an eye out for possibly sick customers. She said she asked an employee who had recently flown to China to stay home for two weeks as a safeguard. Wong, who often works with Chinese customers at FirstBank, said she's heard from some who are stuck in China because of the outbreak.

Other business owners along this busy corridor on Federal Boulevard -- including owners at the iconic Little Saigon district -- said they had not seen any change in business.

Ken Do, manager and owner at Little Saigon Market in the Far East Center, has only seen a few customers wearing masks inside his market, which he sees as a good sign. He said things usually slow down for Asian stores after the new year anyway. Do is Vietnamese, but he said his customers come from different ethnic backgrounds.

Ken Do, manager and owner at Little Saigon Market, poses behind the counter at his Federal Boulevard grocery store. Feb. 25, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

"People aren't scared or anything yet," Do said. "I've seen one or two people (wearing face masks), that's it. I didn't see anybody coming and asking about the coronavirus or anything like that."

Truong An Gifts owner Fawn Luong said she hasn't seen much of a change at her gift shop. She said other industries, like restaurants, are probably feeling the effects more.

Christina Lam, manager at Pacific Ocean Marketplace in Denver, said she's noticed there are fewer families coming into the Asian supermarket on Alameda Avenue, one of three in the metro area. Lam is from Vietnam.

"You hear people cough, you try to avoid it," Lam said.

She said families are now sending one person to get groceries instead of going out as a group, and other Asian community members are avoiding gatherings due to concerns about the coronavirus. Lam said she hasn't changed her usual destinations, but there has been some extra cleaning around the market.

A Chinese TV news report about the coronavirus plays on a TV inside Star Kitchen, the dim sum restaurant near the intersection of Mississippi Avenue and Federal Boulevard. Feb. 25, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

"Before in the weekend, they have family gathering today for dim sum, they go out together with the community," Lam said. "Now they try to avoid Asian community a little bit."

Campbell said local business owners are hoping this impact "dissipates" over the next few months. She hasn't heard of violent or racist attacks against Asian residents, even though such crimes are being reported in other parts of the country.

"I really think that Denver is sending out the message that intolerance will not be tolerated," Campbell said.

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