Artists painted murals throughout the CID. Photos by Auriza Ugalino.

In mid-March, before Gov. Jay Inslee’s order to close businesses to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurants in the CID already needed help. “They were the ones that were hit the most, just because of the anti-Asian sentiment, and then people not really wanting to go out,” said Jamie Lee, director of community initiatives for the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDpda). 

SCIDpda, the Chinatown International District Business Improvement Area (CIDBIA), and Friends of Little Saigon banded together to form a relief fund for small businesses. After an early donation of $100,000 from Vulcan, Lee thought “it would be cute if we could raise, like, another ten [thousand].”

Ten thousand poured in in the first few days. Soon, larger companies started noticing and offering big chunks of money. Employees at large companies donated with employer matches — for example, a group called “Asians at Google” raised $15,000 for the fund this way.

One day, the fund received an email offering $250,000 dollars in Amazon stock. Lee and the other coordinators thought it was a scam at first — but it wasn’t.

The CID Restaurant and Small Business Fund has now raised over $750,000 dollars from 1,500 individual donors, and helped 165 businesses in the neighborhood. The fund has released three rounds of grants, providing businesses between $1,500 and $5,000 since the start of the pandemic. It has also helped secure another $700,000 in COVID-19 related grants, including doing outreach, translating and helping businesses apply. 

But with the coronavirus surging once again, restaurants and other businesses are still figuring out how to survive — and the fund is still seeking donations. Last month, Maneki, Seattle’s oldest Sushi restaurant, launched a GoFundMe to help the business stay open.

Getting cash in the hands of small businesses was a priority for the first round of grants, especially after restaurants closed in-person dining to comply with the first stay-at-home order. “We just wanted to give them cash to cover whatever expenses they might need,” said Lee. The cash infusion helped restaurants make payroll. It has since helped businesses pay for rent, business loans, utilities, and to buy products and ingredients, allowing them to offer a consistent menu.

“It’s not going to ultimately save a business who’s on the brink of closure, but it’s definitely keeping people hanging on,”’ said Valerie Tran, operations director for Friends of Little Saigon.

One story that stays with Tran: While helping a customer one day, the owner of Mi La Cay restaurant in Little Saigon suddenly broke down in tears over how difficult things had been. The customer wrote a post in the Support the ID Facebook group (which has since been archived, and is no longer active). SCIDpda wrote a feature piece on the business and shared it on social media, and suddenly business exploded. 

SCIDpda has been sharing stories from businesses that have been helped by the fund throughout its existence — they can be read here.

In the course of awarding grants, a few businesses were doing well enough that they turned down the grant money, so it would go to businesses in need.  “This, to me, just kind of shows the sense of community that we have in the neighborhood,” said Lee.

With King County in Phase 2 of re-opening, businesses seem to be in “survival mode,” Lee said. They may have adapted to takeout, but some businesses are still concerned about the liveliness of the neighborhood.

Tran and Lee hope the spike in enthusiasm to help the neighborhood at the beginning of the pandemic will continue. Donations for the fund are trickling in, but may have slowed a bit.

“There’s a lot of fatigue out there,” Tran said. “I don’t know how that’s going to change over time, but that ultimately will affect businesses.”

And when the time eventually comes to transition to Phase 4 and full recovery, it will be a challenging process, Lee said. “It’s not like we have an expert to go talk to to be like, ‘When you were re-opening a business district after a global pandemic, what did you do?’” 

In the fall, the coordinators of the fund will evaluate whether to start more active fundraising for businesses. For now, there is a “rainy day fund” set aside from extra donations. After all, a resurgence in the virus is expected in the fall.

A worst-case scenario at the start of the pandemic was that small businesses in the CID would have to close, Lee and Tran said. As of yet, this has been averted. No CID businesses have closed permanently as a result of the pandemic.

Donors can donate and find information about the fund at bit.ly/cidbizrelief.

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