When Hong Kong immigrant Ivan Zhong opened his restaurant Soku Asian Fusion on Middle Neck Road last May, he took an active role in every step of bringing his dream project to fruition. From the design of the menus to the decor and plating, Zhong’s hands were never absent from the labor it took to get the restaurant off the ground. That labor paid off in spades as Soku opened to rave reviews and plenty of customer traffic.
But 2020 hasn’t been nearly as kind to Soku. Zhong estimates business at the restaurant is down about 50 percent over the last couple months, and he thinks he knows why.
“We’re a new business, so normally business is supposed to be better and better,” Zhong said. “But with the coronavirus, we’ve been hit. Not a lot of people feel comfortable coming out to dine right now.”
So far, the medical impact of coronavirus in the United States has been limited, with two confirmed cases in New York as of March 4 and all six confirmed deaths coming from Washington state. But the illness’ impact on Asian-owned businesses in Great Neck has been severe.
Zhong is far from the only proprietor struggling to make ends meet, New Fu Run owner Tina Zhang said business is down about 50 percent for her establishment as well.
“Business has been really slow, it’s down a lot,” Zhang, who said she had to ask her landlord to lower rent to help make ends meet, said. “During the weekend we only have a few people. I have a lot of expenses, and the business isn’t enough to cover the expenses right now.”
While Zhang said she’s confused about why the coronavirus panic has hurt her business, since nobody who works at New Fu Run or their family members have coronavirus and Chinese food is perfectly safe, she doesn’t think the discrimination Chinese-owned businesses are facing is racial in nature.
“It’s not about race, it’s just because the virus came from China,” Zhang said. “I think they’re afraid that you might have relatives that came to visit. I think that’s the concern that they have.”
With a second case of coronavirus in New York having only just been confirmed, and more widespread testing likely to lead to an increase in the number of reported cases throughout the county, Zhang added she’s worried things will get worse for her business before they get better.
Great Neck Chinese Association (GNCA) Media Relationship Committee Chair Rebecca Chu attributed the downturn in local business to the panic being caused by sensationalized media reports and spread among the community through social media.
“Panic spreads faster than an epidemic because of the social media platform these days since nobody knows what information is correct,” Chu said. “Especially in the Chinese community, because we have relatives and friends back in China who have actually been impacted that we communicate with on a regular basis. People are worried, and try to avoid any activities that involve going to a big crowd.”
Farrah Mozawalla, executive director of the Nassau County Office of Asian Affairs, said Chinese-owned business are hurting throughout the county, not just in Great Neck.
“Many of the businesses that we’ve spoken to, whether its nail salons, restaurants or grocery stores, they’ve all had about a 25 to 60 percent decline in business,” Mozawalla said. “Every single person that’s called our office has said it’s definitely impacted them.”
Mozawalla encouraged concerned residents to visit the county health department’s website for the most up to date information on the virus Nassau has to offer. More locally, the GNCA is trying to put together a webinar with a medical expert to help answer questions people in the community have.
After the first confirmed coronavirus case in New York was reported last week, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo held a press conference to try and dispel any bubbling panic in the state. The state has allocated $40 million to help with its response to the advancing illness.
In an attempt to aid impacted businesses, New York State Senator Anna Kaplan held a lunch at New Fu Run with the Chinese consul general and officials from the Town of North Hempstead on Saturday, Feb. 22, where she spoke about the importance of supporting small businesses against unsubstantiated fears.
“Small businesses are the lifeblood of our communities, and right now, many small businesses owned by our Asian-American neighbors are suffering due to unfounded fears of the coronavirus,” Kaplan said. “These businesses are part of the fabric of our downtowns, and if they’re forced to lay off staff or close their doors, it would be a huge loss for everyone. That’s why I’m urging all Long Islanders to step up and show their support for these local businesses during their time of need.”
Great Neck Plaza Deputy Mayor Ted Rosen, who was present with Kaplan at New Fu Run, told the Great Neck Record that the village is working with the GNCA to create a panel event aimed at figuring out how to help struggling businesses in the community.
“It’s understandable that people are afraid, but you have to try to act based on the facts,” Rosen said. “We have to try and support local businesses in this. From what’s come out lately it’s not limited to any one group, and it’s unfair to single out any one community. Hopefully people will realize that.”
In the meantime, both Zhong and Zhang have said they are continuing to emphasize keeping their facilities clean, but acknowledge there’s not a lot they can do on their level beyond that.
“We’re doing everything we can,” Zhong said. “We’ve been doing promotions to make sure people feel comfortable to come out, but I don’t know what else we can do.”