For Valentine’s Day this year, Richmond’s perennially busy hot-pot joint, Dolar Shop, broke tradition and took evening reservations because of worries that few customers would show up due to fears of COVID-19, also known as the novel coronavirus.
But its tables ended up being fully booked, and its online waitlist had more than 90 groups signed up by 6 p.m. The Straight went to check out the popular restaurant on February 14, and we weren’t able to get a table even after waiting for more than two hours.
Several factors may have come into play for the boost in business despite having fewer customers the previous week: it was a Friday night, a romantic occasion for couples to eat out, and the beginning of a long weekend.
The news of a dining spot at full capacity is a breath of fresh air for many Chinese restaurants in Metro Vancouver as of late. Countless dining establishments with a large Chinese clientele have seen a stark decline in business ever since news of the COVID-19 outbreak came out last month.
“Business has gone down a lot compared to the same time last year, around 60 percent,” Wu Yong Zhong, chef and owner of Koon Bo Restaurant, told the Straight in a phone interview. “We are losing money every day. We cannot keep our doors closed, but every day we open, we’re losing money.”
However, Wu acknowledges that his restaurant is not as badly affected as those in Richmond.
“The Mainland Chinese people are the ones who are shying away from restaurants and public places a lot more than the local Chinese people,” David Chung, president of the B.C. Asian Restaurant Cafe Owners Association (BCARCOA) and owner of Jade Seafood Restaurant, told the Straight in a phone interview.
Once known for having line-ups out the door, Happy Tree House BBQ’s business has dropped nearly 90 percent, according to BCARCOA’s director and chief secretary, William Tse.
Diners avoiding Chinese restaurants but continuing to frequent other food establishments around the city seems discriminatory to Alfred Yeung, general manager at Dynasty Seafood Restaurant.
“The novel coronavirus doesn’t appear in a specific place or restaurant, it can take place in any location,” Yeung said to the Straight in a phone interview. “But Chinese restaurants are affected the most because our clientele are mostly Chinese, and some may associate that with people who have just returned from the country where the outbreak began.”
According to the World Health Organization’s latest situation report on COVID-19, there are more than 73,332 cases globally, with 72,528 from China.
There are a total of five cases in B.C.
“In my opinion, people are getting worried for no reason,” Wendy Li, general manager of New Fishport Seafood Bistro, told the Straight by phone. “I feel like westerners who wouldn’t have been afraid to frequent Chinese restaurants, are now taking precautions because they see Chinese people are avoiding Chinese restaurants. It has become fearmongering.”
Li also runs a seafood wholesale company, and provided insight into Chinese restaurants recovering from the slump in business.
“Some of the restaurants like Sun Sui Wah Seafood Restaurant and Red Star Seafood Restaurant seem to be doing pretty well,” added Li. “They have ordered more and more quantities from us than in previous weeks.”
Despite many restaurants with a large Chinese clientele being affected by fears and concerns of COVID-19, Chung believes that those feelings will subside, and diners will come out to eat again.
His long-time eatery, Jade Seafood Restaurant, had so many reservations over the Family Day long weekend, he is starting to think things are turning for the better.
“The initial reaction was a little over reactive, it’s the psychology of it,” said Chung. “I think people see that not coming out to eat is not a real solution, and they’ve realized the risk is not that high after all.”
In the latest statement released by the top health officials in B.C., they continue to emphasize that the risk of spread of the virus within the province remains low, and calls for respect, tolerance, and compassion toward each other.
That’s exactly what we can show by enjoying a meal at one of the many renowned and locally run Chinese restaurants around Metro Vancouver.