Shaanxi Garden was packed on January 25, the first day of the Lunar New Year celebration. Diners waited up to an hour for a table at the Mesa Chinese restaurant, known for its tingly spices and seriously addictive hand-torn noodles.
Then rumors broke of a case of new coronavirus (COVID-19) in Arizona, later confirmed by health officials. The patient was a member of the Arizona State University community who recently had traveled to Wuhan, China, where the first cases of the coronavirus were detected.
"When the news came, it completely slowed us down," Shaanxi Garden owner Noel Cheng said, adding that she has seen a 40 to 50 percent sales decline. Since then, she's had to cut her employees' hours.
She was one of several Chinese restaurant owners who told Phoenix New Times they believe misconceptions about the coronavirus have affected their businesses.
Just down the street from Shaanxi Garden, Szechuan restaurant Spice Spirit Chinese Cuisine also reported a 40 percent drop in sales. The restaurant's co-owner says it can't cover its costs with the amount its bringing in.
Bin Li, the owner of Nan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodle House, said his restaurant has seen a 10 to 20 percent decline in sales since the coronavirus outbreak.
And Asian Cafe Express owner Anna Guo said her business has only seen about a 5 percent drop, but noted that she's seeing more customers placing to-go orders rather than dining in.
The reports track with a worldwide trend of Chinese restaurants facing steep drops in business amid unfounded fears that people are more likely to contract the coronavirus while eating at Asian restaurants. Last month, organizers of the Asian District Night Market in Mesa said they received several demands that they cancel the event.
The night market went on as planned, drawing thousands of visitors. Mesa Mayor John Giles was among the night market's attendees.
In a statement, Giles told Phoenix New Times: "COVID-19 doesn't discriminate and neither should we. People are no more likely to get the virus in Mesa's Asian District as they are in any other public area. Tying the virus to a culture is xenophobic and is not in the best interest of our community. I support our growing Asian District and eat lunch there often."
As several columnists have pointed out, the anxieties over Chinese food reflect long-standing prejudices about Asian people. Defending the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, public officials at the time pushed the xenophobic stereotype that Chinese people are dirty and disease-prone.
Notably, the restaurant owners who spoke with New Times for this story emphasized their cleaning procedures.
"Chinese cooking here is like any restaurant," Cheng said, owner of Shaanxi Garden. "We sanitize. We use a high-pressure washer. We have an A score from the Maricopa County health department."
Lu Han, a co-owner of Spice Spirit, said, "We disinfect our mops, our dishes. We use a dishwasher, like everyone else. We don't hand-wash stuff. Pretty much everything we serve food on is disinfected every day. That's not because of coronavirus. It's something we always do."
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Both restaurant owners were eager to dispel the idea Chinese restaurants are any more dangerous than other restaurants.
"It’s a total rumor that eating Chinese food will give you coronavirus," Cheng said. "That’s like saying drinking Corona beer will give your coronavirus."
Han noted that Spice Spirit gets its food from Restaurant Depot, a wholesaler in Mesa that supplies many restaurants.
"I get a bunch of chicken legs and make orange chicken," she said. "Pretty much 99 percent of restaurants in this area get chicken legs from Restaurant Depot."