It was lunch hour at a popular Chinese restaurant on the North Shore of Nassau County that normally would be packed, but earlier this week the place was a sea of empty tables and chairs, with two bored waiters standing around hoping for a customer.
The reason: fears over the coronavirus that originated in China — which as of Friday had infected 31,481 people and killed 638, according to the World Health Organization, though none in the United States. One U.S. citizen with the virus has died in China, The Associated Press reported Saturday.
“My restaurant is empty,” lamented the owner, who did not want her name or that of her business used for fear of scaring off even more customers. “No one is here. Not even one table.”
“There is no danger,” she added, “but people are afraid and they don’t want to come out.”
Across Long Island, the coronavirus is having a ripple effect, hurting business at some Chinese restaurants, forcing some companies to put their business activities in China on hold, and prompting some business travelers to cancel trips there.
“People are very worried about the situation,” said Guodong Zhang, chairman and president of the Long Island Chinese American Association. “The restaurants, people have some concern. They have definitely seen the number of customers decrease.”
At the Zouji Dumpling House in Glen Cove, business is off by about 20%, said manager Sean Wu. He said he believes that is partly due to Chinese college students who have not been able to return to the United States since the outbreak of the virus, and also to Americans afraid to eat there.
“People are scared about it,” he said.
Still, some Chinese restaurant owners and workers said their business has not been affected by the virus.
At the Kam Fong restaurant in Jericho, worker Jennifer Chen said the situation was normal.
“Everything is OK,” she said. “It’s almost the same. No big difference.”
A few feet away, a couple of customers were enjoying their lunch break.
“I’m not worried. I’m conscious of it,” said Ed Friedman, an IT worker from Smithtown. “They say do what you normally do.”
Nassau and Suffolk County officials have not issued any warnings against eating in Chinese restaurants or patronizing Chinese and Asian businesses.
“We do not have any confirmed cases in Nassau County and the risk to the County remains low,” Nassau spokeswoman Christine Geed said in a statement. County health officials are “asking people to stay calm and to practice general sanitary precautions,” such as washing hands with soap and water and covering their mouths with a sleeve or tissue when they sneeze or cough.
While coronavirus is generating headlines, health experts say the flu has been much more deadly this season, with 22 million people infected, 210,000 hospitalized and 12,000 killed in the United States since October, according to estimates by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday. Those figures compare with 12 confirmed cases across the country for coronavirus, according to the World Health Organization.
That has not stopped fear of coronavirus from spreading — even, sometimes, at businesses that are not Chinese.
At the Krung Tep Thai Bistro in Great Neck, worker Bella Satinee said some customers have been asking staff if they will wear masks — even though the staff is not Chinese.
Despite that, she said, business has remained steady.
Business also appears unaffected at most Chinese and Asian supermarkets, Zhang said. He believes the situation in Flushing and Manhattan’s Chinatown is much worse.
At the North Shore restaurant that has seen a serious impact from coronavirus fears, the owner said she was hit hard on Jan. 25, the Chinese New Year — typically a big business day — when four large table reservations canceled.
Super Bowl Sunday, also usually a successful day, “was super, super slow,” she said.
For Long Island companies that do business in China, most things are on hold because China is essentially on lockdown, said Savio S. Chan, chief executive of U.S.-China Partners Inc., a trade consulting firm with an office in Great Neck.
“My clients are feeling helpless but know they have to sit tight and ride this out,” he said. “They are going to hunker down for the next two to four months and prepare to go back” to China once the virus subsides.
Chan said the number of messages he receives from clients has spiked since the outbreak of the virus. “I’m spending 25 percent of my time answering questions about the coronavirus,” he said.
Chan expects things to get back to normal soon, in part because the Chinese must meet the goals of their latest economic Five-Year Plan, which ends Dec. 31.
The coronavirus “will turn out to be a hiccup” for China’s economic growth, he said. “You cannot stop the Chinese consumer from spending.”
Meanwhile, some Long Island business people are calling off plans to travel to Asia.
Sheila Yellin, president and owner of Courtyard Travel in Great Neck, said one group of about a dozen business people canceled a trip they had booked to Hong Kong.
“Eventually they’ll have to go, but for now they canceled,” she said. “It’s a fact, but we’ll move on.”
Liz Harnos of Burr Travel Bureau in Northport said worry about the virus extends beyond the Far East for some travelers. One recently canceled a trip to Europe, and many others have voiced concerns.
“I do try to quell their fears,” she said. “Many times the CDC gets things under control.”
With James T. Madore and Ken Schachter