As coronavirus spread, and “because people are racist,” as Sarah Baker of the Seattle Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) put it, restaurants in the Chinatown-International District have been suffering losses since the end of January.
Now, after an emergency declaration from Gov. Jay Inslee on Monday, all restaurants, bars and places of recreation in the state must close outright until March 31, and perhaps longer. They will still be allowed to offer takeout and delivery services.
“Across the board it is going to have a long-term impact,” said Connie Au-Yeung, communications and marketing coordinator for the Chinatown International District Business Improvement Area (CIDBIA). While many restaurants are “holding on pretty strong,” and making sure their employees, staff and patrons are safe, Au-Yeung fears the temporary closure could push vulnerable businesses into shuttering permanently.
In a statement announcing the temporary closures, Inslee acknowledged it would have economic impacts, but said it was absolutely necessary, as one of the few tools available to slow the spread of the virus.
“We are doing this for a simple reason: To save lives of our loved ones in Washington,” said Inslee in a live-streamed press conference on Monday. “All of us have to recognize in the next several weeks that normal is not in our game plan.”
The order also applies to coffee shops, food courts, beauty salons, barbers, theaters, tattoo parlors, gyms and fitness centers, museums and art galleries. Grocery stores, pharmacies and other businesses can stay open.
“Our resilience is going to be represented by the takeout box,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine at the press conference Monday.
Inslee said the state is looking at ways to help displaced workers and businesses, and he wants the federal government to recognize pandemics as disasters, which could increase the numbers of workers who can be protected by employment compensation. The state will also look for places in funding allocated by the legislature to help businesses, though Inslee said there is a long list of crises in Washington related to coronavirus that also need funding.
The Seattle Office of Economic Development will commit around $1.5. million toward a Small Business Stabilization Fund, providing grants of up to $10,000 for low-income small businesses. The businesses must have five employees or less, a physical location, and loss of income as a result of coronavirus.
The CIDBIA is still in the process of developing strategies to help businesses, said Au-Yeung, but in the meantime is helping businesses apply for financial relief and offering them information and resources.
The closure will hit businesses differently, Au-Yeung notes. Those that already had a platform for deliveries or gifts cards might have an easier time than those that need to build those now.
In the longer term, the CIDBIA will work with the City and County to secure more funding for relief efforts to help businesses, Au-Yeung said.
“We’re encouraging people to continue ordering online, delivery, takeout, and of course to practice safe social distancing, but at the same time remember that businesses need support,” she said.
In the meantime, community members have been taking matters into their own hands to help CID businesses. In the first week of March, as she was driving through the CID, Chris Potter was struck by the decrease in business and traffic. “Usually the streets are teeming with people, but it was like driving through a ghost town,” she wrote in an email.
She had recently read countless stories about racism API community members were facing as coronavirus spread. With the help of other community members, she organized a dinner on March 10 at Harbor City and Hong Kong Bistro, with a Facebook event titled “Screw Racism: A Chinese Meal.” Around 34 people showed up.
The event was organized “on the threshold of the period when in-person meals made sense,” and now things are different, Potter said. “We as a community need to continue to find ways to creatively adapt in how we support our small businesses, which are the lifeblood of the C-ID.”
At the beginning of March, Baker and Bill Tashima of JACL Seattle started a Facebook group titled “Support the ID – Community United,” for people to promote CID businesses and others owned by people of color, and share stories of their visits to businesses.
Somewhat to Baker’s surprise, the group started gaining 1,000 members per day. It now has almost 10,000. People posted about their visits to local restaurants, photos of meals and hidden gems, advice and tips on how to help people.
“It’s just been really breathtaking every day to see,” Baker said. “All of these folks are coming together because they care, and because they have hope that we can make a big difference for small businesses.”
Following Inslee’s emergency declaration, Baker and the other administrators in the group have been careful to encourage people to follow directives from the government about social distancing.
“As long as we can do takeout, we’re going to encourage people to do that,” she said. Baker also encourages people to reach out to businesses directly and ask them what they need. “They’re their own best advocates, so they can tell us exactly what it is that would be the best to help support them.”
Baker was particularly moved by a post in the group from Eric Chan, whose father has run Jade Garden for 17 years. Chan thanked community members for supporting Asian businesses like his father’s. “To cut to the chase, plain and simple. We are STRUGGLING…with everything that has gone on,” Chan wrote. “We’ve lost almost 80% of our business..and many other shops around us are suffering as well.”
“I was so unaware that our community is coming together to help support us,” he continued. “For the past month and half everyone has been feeling hopeless. A sense of just ‘when will it be our turn to closedown’. After stumbling upon this group there is a dim light of hope.”
Jade Garden, like many other restaurants in the CID, is still open for takeout.