Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney dined in Chinatown to calm fears of the coronavirus
As the deadly coronavirus kills more people in China, and businesses in Philadelphia's Chinatown feel the harsh ripple of fear, rumor, and lost business, Kenney sat down for lunch in the figurative heart of the region’s Asian community.
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Call it an act of moral, political, and culinary support.
As the deadly coronavirus kills more people in China, and businesses in Philadelphia’s Chinatown feel the harsh ripple of fear, rumor, and lost business, Mayor Jim Kenney sat down to lunch Thursday in the figurative heart of the region’s Asian community.
“Come back to Chinatown and eat — it’s great,” the mayor said before taking a seat at Ocean Harbor restaurant, a dim sum emporium just a block from where Chinatown was founded in 1870. “Chinatown is safe. The city is safe. America is safe. Everybody should relax.”
No case of the virus has been reported in Pennsylvania or New Jersey.
But even as the mayor efficiently worked a pair of chopsticks, attacking a fresh order of shrimp dumplings, Chinatown residents said worries about the coronavirus were apparent in empty tables at restaurants. That financial loss filters down to cooks and waiters who lose work, and to local grocery stores that miss out on selling supplies.
Ocean Harbor workers told people that four banquets had just been canceled — a big loss at the Lunar New Year, a time when Chinatown is typically bustling, noted Margaret Chin, board chairperson of Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp., the neighborhood-improvement group.
The mayor was accompanied by Managing Director Brian Abernathy, Health Commissioner Thomas Farley, and City Councilmember Mark Squilla, whose district includes Chinatown, and Councilmembers Helen Gym and Bobby Henon. They ate with several leaders of the Chinatown business community.
Kenney’s arrival echoed an earlier visit by an earlier mayor in an earlier, equally nervous time.
Back in 2003, as Chinatown merchants saw business halved by fears around the SARS epidemic, then-Mayor John Street and 30 senior administration officials had dinner at the very same restaurant, likewise trying to show people it was safe.
“We came to eat,” Street pronounced. “There’s great eating and there’s nothing to be afraid about.”
Today, in the weeks since the virus emerged from China, believed to have risen from an animal market in the Hubei province capital of Wuhan, Asians across the globe have recounted episodes of discrimination. Amid quarantines, travel alerts, and cancellations, fear has spread faster than sickness.
Even without a single case of the illness, the impact in the Philadelphia region has been dramatic. College students studying in China or hoping to do so here have had their semesters upended, a church serving Chinese Americans asked members who recently returned from China to avoid Sunday services, and organizations that were preparing for festive Lunar New Year celebrations instead dropped their plans.
Memories linger in Chinatown of the economic damage caused by rumors around SARS.
On Wednesday health officials in Wisconsin confirmed the state’s first case of coronavirus, raising the total number of American cases to 12 in six states. Test results are still pending in 76 others, according to the Centers for Disease Control and prevention.
In China at least 563 people have died, with more than 28,000 others infected, according to the China National Health Commission. Authorities there also reported that 261 patients were cured and released from hospitals.
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the Fujian Association of Greater Philadelphia corrected its report that a Chinese person wearing a surgical mask was pushed on a SEPTA subway platform on Monday by someone frightened of coronavirus. The incident actually occurred in Washington, the spokesperson said, the confusion occurring as news was rapidly shared over WeChat, the Chinese multipurpose messaging, social media, and mobile payment app.
Asians here say they’ve been blamed on social media for causing the epidemic, becoming the focus of unnerving stares and “jokes” in a country that has a long history of anti-Chinese and anti-Asian racism.
Asian people have pushed back on Twitter, starting the hashtag #IamNotAVirus and condemning racist comments.
Cecilia Moy Yep, affectionately sometimes called the “godmother of Chinatown” for her decades-long roles in Chinatown improvement, was among those who dined with Kenney.
She doesn’t blame people for following the news or paying attention to the spread of the virus, she said. But it’s important to separate fact from fiction. Not one case in Chinatown. Not one suspected case.
“We’re all concerned,” Yep said. “But on the other hand, you can’t live in fear.”