The Ripple Effect of a Pandemic

The street view of Boston Chinatown. Photo by Ruoyi Song

By Ruoyi Song

For Chinese living in the United States, the coronavirus has made them more worried not only about their health but also about their job status and livelihood.

Mei Xiang runs a Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles. When the coronavirus started spreading, her restaurant went into lockdown. During the worst of times, she almost wanted to give up her restaurant. Since March, many restaurants have had to close because of the policy of home quarantine and lockdown. Many restaurants have closed down because they have no income. Among them were Mei Xiang’s friends.

Mei Xiang didn’t give up because she had to fight to get where she is today. In July 2014, she and her family rented a stall in Monterey Park in Los Angeles, called Old Chengdu that featured a small stir-fry with pictures of dishes, from crab dumplings in Shanghai to diced chicken with chili to boiled fish. The store employed five workers, each taking turns as the cashier or for food preparation and packing.

Her restaurant is in the eastern borough of Los Angeles, a neighborhood known for Asians and other immigrants from all over the world. Because of her diligence and the good taste of the restaurant, she was gradually recognized by many regular customers. She used the money from her restaurant to support her son, who was studying at Columbia University, and bought a house in suburban LA.

But in 2020, the U.S. restaurant industry was hit hard by the COVID-19 outbreak. Many states and cities began requiring restaurants and bars to stop serving meals in March, and while those restaurants are gradually opening, it will affect the livelihoods of the 15.6 million people who work in the industry nationwide.

However, for Mei Xiang, it’s been even worse. Since January 2019, rumors and discrimination have begun to permeate the lives of many Asians. Some regard Chinese food and Chinese people as carriers or sources of infection and avoid eating in Chinese restaurants.

But Mei Xiang has been extra careful to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. To ensure her employees stay safe, Mei Xiang also made them wear masks and gloves. “We owe rent, utilities, gas,” says Mei., adding that if she pays her employees, she has no money to pay her bills. “The reduction in customers has left us spending more than we can make ends meet. Many of my friends who owned restaurants closed down,” she said.

All the workers Mei Xiang employs have stopped working out of fear of the pandemic, leaving Mei Xiang and her family with the task of keeping the restaurant open. Starting at 8 a.m., she arrives at the restaurant to prepare the food, so that it’s ready for the delivery people. So it’s stir-fry and pack until 4 p.m., when she finally has time to eat her first meal. But she is often too busy to eat even then. Mei Xiang calls this process “handing in homework” because it’s daily drudgery.

As President Trump has repeatedly described COVID-19 as a “Chinese virus,” many people’s xenophobia against Chinese people has been ignited. As early as the end of January, many Americans are cutting back on eating at Chinese restaurants. Searches on Yelp for Chinese restaurants, which typically increase around the Lunar New Year, dropped significantly this year, according to Yelp data. In the first three weeks of February, interactions such as phone calls, website clicks, delivery orders and reviews for Chinese restaurants fell by about 20 percent among all types of restaurants.

The two-month-old moratorium has not only challenged Chinese restaurant owners, but it has also spawned a number of fresh delivery platforms catering to Chinese, delivering a variety of meat, fruit and snacks from Chinese supermarkets to the homes of reluctant customers.

This was an unexpected turn of events for Tina Ru. She moved to the United States two years ago to reunite with her husband, who runs a food-delivery platform in New York. “Before the coronavirus went viral, we were just delivering takeaways, but now we’re delivering in supermarkets,” Ru said. “Because many people are reluctant to leave their homes, the flow of people to supermarkets increases the risk of the virus spreading,” she said. “It’s a business opportunity for us, although I’m worried.” When delivering vegetables at the supermarket, Ru never takes off her gloves. After two hours of work, her plastic gloves are covered in sweat.

At about the same time, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States topped 1million, and New York has seen a spike in infections. As of July 28, the novel coronavirus had confirmed more than 4.43 million cases in the United States, making it the most infected country in the world.

Faced with such a situation, Ru was also worried. “Every day when I bought food, I saw people waiting in long lines outside the supermarket,” she said. “When I came into the supermarket, they all smelled of disinfectant. Sometimes I feel flustered and afraid that I won’t get the goods and be able to deliver them on time.”

Chen Shuang, who is from Shenzhen, China, has lived in the United States for seven years. After graduating from college, she successfully obtained an H1B work visa. However, when novel coronavirus came, she was laid off. “Because of the epidemic, my Internet company started to lay off staff due to the loss of earnings, and we foreign employees were among the first to be eliminated,” Chen said. “It is very difficult for me to find a new job,” she said. “I have only enough savings to live on for two months, after which I may not be able to pay my rent. ”

The menu in a Chinese restaurant. Photo by Ruoyi Song

The employment report showed 21 million Americans were unemployed, but the weekly jobless claims report said 30 million people were continuing to claim unemployment benefits under all plans. At a White House news conference in April, Trump announced new executive orders that would end work visa approvals for most foreign nationals for 60 days. Officials say this is to prevent foreigners from bringing the virus into the United States, and to ensure that immigrants do not take American jobs once the U.S. economy restarts. The latest report shows that the U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Service will furlough some of its staff on August 3, which will result in longer waits for Optional Practical Training students. But most of the emphasis in the order is on stopping the approval of green card applications, including H1B visas for work.

H1B visa holders already working in the United States must present proof to the government that they do not threaten American employment. “From U.S. Department of Homeland Security perspective news releases ,we certainly have concerns about the number of visas that Chinese students can use,” by Chad Wolf, acting secretary of Homeland Security. “We will make a number of recommendations for international students, including OPT, in many cases.”

The move worries many Chinese graduates in the United States. Meanwhile, four Republican lawmakers, including Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, sent a letter to the Trump administration asking him to continue the ban on new temporary work visas and reduce opportunities for international students to obtain work visas in order to create more jobs for Americans. But international students with work visas find it hard to renew them.

For many Chinese who have been granted work visas to the United States, this has certainly disrupted their lives – unemployment, unemployment, status and visas. “This hits Chinese Americans harder than the coronavirus.” Chen Shuang says.