SCIDpda volunteers deliver groceries and food to people in the CID. Photo courtesy of SCIDpda.

On Thursday, November 5, the International Examiner will recognize and award numerous community-based organizations for how they responded together to the needs of the Chinatown-International District as COVID-19 affected all aspects of life, work and livelihood in the neighborhood this year. 

Before COVID-19 came to the U.S., the Chinatown International District (CID) suffered. The neighborhood lost business as people avoided it because of xenophobic assumptions.

“Just walking around the neighborhood, we were seeing less cars, less foot traffic. The restaurants were empty,” said Michael Itti, executive director of the Chinese Information and Service Center (CISC).

After the first COVID-19 case in the U.S. was diagnosed in Washington state, many Lunar New Year celebrations in the region were cancelled.

Local and nationwide cases of anti-Asian attacks and verbal abuse concerned neighborhood leaders. Michael Byun, executive director of Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS), and Teresita Batayola, CEO of International Community Health Services (ICHS), met with Governor Jay Inslee and King County Executive Dow Constantine to denounce anti-Asian racism.

After the first COVID-19 deaths happened in Washington at the end of February, everything changed. 

The first deaths from COVID-19 in Washington occurred at the end of February, and as the virus spread, it plunged the neighborhood into new territory.

Batayola of ICHS and Nigel Lo, CEO of Kin On, learned of a COVID-19 case at International House, home to over 100 seniors. 

A group of CID organizations started coordinating their resources — medical, social services, and outreach — to prevent an outbreak in the facility and neighborhood, said Itti of CISC, convening weekly calls. They pushed building management at International House to sanitize the building. CISC conducted wellness checks with residents over the phone in multiple languages, educating them about COVID-19 symptoms. InterIm and SCIDpda called residents in their buildings.

In mid-March, after two weeks and no other cases at International House, the regular calls continued, but the focus turned toward other pandemic-related concerns in the neighborhood.

Because it wasn’t safe for senior residents in the neighborhood to leave home and pick up groceries and medication, or to socialize, they suffered social isolation.

“Social isolation has always been a concern and challenge for seniors, even without a pandemic,” said Lillian Young, communications manager at Kin On, in an email. “You can probably imagine how a situation like COVID has only made the problem exponentially worse.” 

To address isolation, CISC case managers helped connect residents with caregivers and other specialists. InterIm kept seniors engaged through WeChat with exercise videos, English and cooking classes. ICHS started offering telehealth and prescription deliveries. Kin On continued providing home care, sending staff to seniors’ homes and care packages to clients living alone. ACRS used video conferencing to connect with clients.

InterIm raised money to buy food from Uwajimaya for delivery to senior residents in its buildings who couldn’t go out to shop. ACRS converted its gym space into a zone for bagging food donations, and delivering them with the help of InterIm and SCIDpda. ICHS prepared hot meals in its kitchen.

Meanwhile, the ACRS food bank and senior meal programs shifted to a delivery model, and ramped up to providing 2,000 culturally-relevant meals per week, and an increased number of grocery bag deliveries throughout Seattle and King County. In partnership with REACH at Evergreen Treatment Services, ACRS has provided hundreds of emergency meals for those experiencing homelessness each week, many living in the CID.

An ACRS staff member bags groceries to deliver to elders and other vulnerable people. Photo courtesy of ACRS.

ICHS set up the first drive-thru COVID-19 testing site in the CID, with the help of Dicky Mar of the International District Emergency Center (IDEC), who provided tents, traffic control supplies, PPE and logistical support to help ICHS set up the site quickly. When access to PPE supplies were limited, IDEC donated its stock of supplies to residents and essential workers, Mar said in an email.

ICHS organized drive-through COVID-19 testing in the CID. Photo courtesy of ICHS.

Friends of Little Saigon (FLS) served as a resource hub for the Vietnamese community, including communicating information, financial help, and addressing public safety, according to Quynh Pham, FLS executive director. FLS worked with other organizations that support Vietnamese businesses including the White Center PDA and the Rainier Beach Merchant’s Association.

Gov. Inslee’s first stay at home order in March forced restaurants to close, causing workers to lose their jobs and forcing business owners to transition into takeout operations.

Seeing the mass layoffs of people in the restaurant industry and elsewhere, InterIm CDA hired an employment navigator to help people file for unemployment, including those without computer skills and limited English proficiency. Over the past five months, the organization also helped 86 people find jobs.

To support businesses, Jamie Lee of SCIDpda, Monisha Singh of the CIDBIA, and Pham of FLS created the CID Small Business Relief Fund, which started with $100,000 in seed money from Vulcan. It would go on to raise over $750,000, distributed as grants to businesses, which helped make payroll, pay rent and business loans, and buy ingredients to sustain operations. To support the relief fund, the organizations also provided outreach, translation and help applying for COVID-19 small business grants.

Sarah Baker and Bill Tashima created the Facebook group Support the ID, which gained 20,000 members and spread the word about businesses that needed support.

When public schools shifted to online learning, SCIDpda, CISC and InterIm worked with families to connect them with technology.

ACRS developed a virtual summer youth program, a safe space for AAPI youth experiencing racism to meet and be creative. InterIm continued its WILD program for youth online.

InterIm continued its homelessness prevention and domestic violence response work, knowing these issues would only be exacerbated by the pandemic, said Pradeepta Upadhyay, InterIm CDA executive director.

“It was very important for us as an organization to be resilient and strong, knowing that the pandemic has had a huge impact on people of color and immigrants and refugees,” said Upadhyay. “It was our duty to step up and say, ‘We’ll try our best.’”

Organizations translated public health information from local governments into languages residents could understand. CISC used WeChat to communicate with clients in the neighborhood and throughout the county about health measures, unemployment assistance information, the CARES Act, and staff responded to hundreds of calls for unemployment help, helping people apply for unemployment, rental assistance and food vouchers.

The Chong Wa Benevolent Association, CID Coalition and API Coalition Advancing Together for Healthy Communities spread information as well.

Starting on the night of May 29, racial justice protests erupted in Seattle after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. A small number of vandals took advantage of the volatile evening of the 29th, smashing several businesses and stealing items.

In the following days, community volunteers showed up to board up the windows of businesses, with the help of the Port of Seattle and the City, who supplied trucks, plywood and tools. Over 100 artists volunteered time to paint murals on the plywood, creating art supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and depicting the CID’s history of activism and its community leaders.

Volunteers came down in June to help board up windows on businesses in the CID. Photo courtesy of SCIDpda..

A new volunteer group, the CID Community Night Watch, was born, with the goal of keeping an eye on the neighborhood at night and making it feel safer. Volunteers kept watch on the neighbrohood, distributed masks and aid, and directed people in need to services. 

According to Ian Munar, Strategic Initiatives Administrator with ICHS the pandemic has inspired collaboration between generations, as well as organizations. “You have older community advocates and younger community advocates and they’re all seeing it differently,” Munar said in an email.

“We have a long history and tradition of working together,” said Itti of CISC. “During COVID-19, it just showed that we have an amazing amount of trust and confidence in each other.” 

The resilience of businesses to maintain operations and take care of each other was “incredible,” said Joseph Guanlao of SCIDpda in an email, noting that larger businesses donated to the CID Small Biz Relief Fund to support smaller ones.

Looking toward the future, people in the neighborhood and beyond will continue facing immediate financial needs to pay for food, medication, rent and other necessities, said Michael Byun of ACRS in an email. A disproportionate number of AAPIs rely on hourly wage work with lower pay, and working in sectors that have been hit hard. “We are facing the beginning of an economic recession, and those most impacted by poverty, language and cultural barriers to services and digital tools will face challenges,” Byun wrote.

Upadhyay worries about continued loss of jobs, and what will happen when the eviction moratorium ends, as well as the health and wellbeing of immigrant youth facing discrimination and racial profiling. 

For Guanlao of SCIDpda, future concerns include the long-term ability to provide groceries, meals and basic needs to the neighborhood, as well as economic recovery, and whether the neighborhood will be able to gather together again. “So much of what was loved in our  neighborhood and made it great was our ability to physically gather, convene and celebrate together as a community,” Guanlao said in an email. Another concern is how people will stay connected in meaningful ways. “How do the connections between residents sustain across  buildings, as they have in the past, and maintain the very localized fabric of our community?” 

Pham of Friends of Little Saigon is feeling uncertain but positive about the future. “Everyone is trying their best to stay open and be resilient during this time,” she said in an email. “We know that without continued support, our businesses might have to close their doors. So we’re doing as much as we can to continue to fight for our community.” 

Itti is concerned about the continuing mental health impacts of people who are isolated. Heading into winter, CISC staff are thinking about how to address mental health, after consulting with behavioral health specialists at ICHS.

Facing an uncertain future, neighborhood organizations continue their work. ICHS is working to ensure people get flu shots, to avoid a “twindemic,” organizing ICHS pop-up flu shot events, according to Munar. The IDEC board is assembling additional PPE for distribution. SCIDpda continues delivering hundreds of grocery bags and meals to 17 buildings in the CID, in collaboration with ACRS, ICHS and others. 

The pandemic has been hard on nonprofits and organizations themselves. Many have lost revenue and worry about funding.

“My biggest concern is just not losing steam, no matter what happens,” said Munar of ICHS in an email. “There are so many people out there rooting for the CID to thrive, to survive. I don’t think it’s an option not to pull through,” said Munar.

“Coming together to respond quickly and be proactive as we safeguard the neighborhood was tremendous,” said Young of Kin On in an email. “I think that needs to continue.”

Purchase tickets to attend night two and three of the International Examiner’s Community Voice Awards. Thursday, Nov. 5, the IE honors community organizations for their response to  COVID-19 in Chinatown-International Examiner.

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