There are no confirmed cases in Oregon of the new coronavirus disease that has sickened tens of thousands of people in China. But fear of the virus has shot through Portland’s Chinese immigrant community.
That fear is hurting some small businesses in the Jade District, many of which are owned by Chinese immigrants and others in the Asian American community.
The worry is clear just walking through the neighborhood.
It’s broadcast on a local shop’s TV screen, where Chinese anchors talk to studio cameras through masks.
It’s printed on the front page of the Portland Chinese Times, in an article debunking local rumors about the virus.
It’s in the cups of “healthy lung tea” Ken Yu gives out for free in his herbal shop, Wing Ming Herbs.
“A lot of people got kind of panicked,” he said. “But in reality, in the U.S. the risk is really, really low.”
Still, Yu has seen an uptick in customers buying immune-boosting herbs, to ward off the virus. He started serving the tea earlier this month.
The undercurrent of anxiety is especially evident in the empty chairs of local restaurants that are usually full at peak hours.
“Whenever I walk around, I notice there’s been a huge, huge decrease,” said Linh Doan, Jade District manager for the social justice advocacy group APANO, the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, which is based in the neighborhood.
“I think there’s really no getting around it,” she said. “It’s definitely the fear and the unknown of what the coronavirus is and if people are doing what’s needed to protect others.”
Just down the street is Ocean City Seafood Restaurant, with its wide-open dining room and waitresses wheeling carts of dim sum. Doan said — in typical times — it’s much more than a restaurant.
“If you go there even when it opens, there’s already people sitting there reading their paper and having their tea and enjoying the dim sum,” she said. “It’s almost like the local hangout in the morning. People are there to convene.”
But gathering, convening and breathing the communal air, that’s exactly what scares some people now. Ocean City owner Lisa Fan said coronavirus fear has cut business by half, even though no one in Oregon has been infected.
“The older people, they don’t want to come out because they’re nervous,” she said.
Fan is too — about her rent. Her employees. She opened the restaurant more than a decade ago, but said she’s never seen business this slow.
More than 2,000 people in China have died because of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The first confirmed case in the U.S. was in Washington; that patient has fully recovered. A handful of Americans infected abroad have been transferred to a Spokane hospital with a specialized unit for treating highly infectious diseases. A Forest Grove woman was infected on the now-infamous Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan.
But even though the virus is not known to be present in Oregon, social media has amplified the feeling that it’s everywhere.
“It is making the difference,” acupuncturist Carmen Chin said. “It is making the difference.”
Chin runs two businesses from a storefront in the Jade District — Amity Clinic and Yang He Herbal Pharmacy.
Like Ken Yu, she’s seen more people buying herbs to boost their immune systems. But she also fielded call after call last week as her clients canceled every acupuncture appointment on the schedule.
“Eighty percent of my patients are Chinese people. So they would rather just stay home and be safe,” she said.
Chin has watched rumors about the virus tear through social media, particularly the widely used app WeChat. She saw the false rumor that two local public school students had been infected with the virus. She also read questionable information about how long a person can carry the virus before becoming infectious.
“Oh, is that right?” she asked herself. “Even myself, I have a medical license. I still have to think twice about that. So rumor can really do a lot.”
Chin said she feels helpless. No one knows how long the epidemic or the fear or the rumors will last. Her family sent masks and protective clothing to a hospital in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, where her great-uncle works.
In fact, protective face masks have sold out all around Portland recently.
“When the run started, I had a guy come in and he bought 15 cases all at once,” said Matt Mills, who works at the Home Depot in Clackamas. “We get them in and they sell out.”
Those masks were made in China. They were shipped here for sale. Now the community is sending them back in the hope of saving lives.
In Portland’s Jade District, there are communal efforts to keep businesses from harm as well, by tamping down on rumors and reducing fear.