Chicago's Chinatown takes a hit as coronavirus fears keep customers away. Business is down as much as 50% at some restaurants

Robert Channick, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Business News

CHICAGO -- The epicenter of global coronavirus outbreak is 7,000 miles away, but fear of the illness has turned Chicago's Chinatown into a veritable ghost town, with customers staying away in droves, leaving some restaurants and businesses nearly empty during lunchtime this week.

It was, at first glance, business as usual, with people mostly eschewing masks as they straggled in and out of restaurants, emerged from the Park To Shop with groceries and went to the bank. But the bustle was missing, with wide-open sidewalks and plazas casting a surreal pall over the popular Near South Side neighborhood and tourist attraction.

Chinatown's two-level retail courtyard, home to an eclectic mix of stores and restaurants, resembled a vacant movie set Tuesday. Diners were few and far between, with lunchtime traffic down as much as 50% at some restaurants since news of the coronavirus outbreak spread -- along with infections -- from a live meat market in Wuhan, China, late last year.

"People may be a little bit scared, but Chinatown is OK," said Tommy Wong, 50, manager of Lao Sze Chuan, a Chinatown staple.

On Tuesday, two diners quietly ate lunch in the otherwise empty restaurant. A typical weekday lunch crowd would have 20 to 30 customers, Wong said.

The novel respiratory virus, which causes pneumonia in some patients, is spread primarily through coughing and sneezing. There have been more than 43,000 diagnosed cases of coronavirus in China, with the death toll there surpassing 1,000 on Tuesday, according to the World Health Organization. Coronavirus has been diagnosed in 24 countries, with 13 confirmed cases but no deaths in the U.S..


There have been two confirmed cases in the Chicago area -- a husband who was infected by his wife after she returned from a visit to Wuhan. It was the first known case of person-to-person coronavirus transmission in the U.S., according to the CDC. The couple has since been released from a hospital in northwest suburban Hoffman Estates.

The coronavirus, which health officials recently named COVID-19, has killed more people in mainland China than the 2003 SARS epidemic, fueling not only humanitarian concerns, but worries about a prolonged drag on the global economy. The cruise industry has been hit particularly hard, as some passengers have remained stranded on ships struck with the virus.

Those worries are hitting home in Chinatown, a neighborhood rich in restaurants, small stores and other attractions that cater to both residents and visitors.

"It's been tough," said Pat Jan, manager of Judy's Cosmetics, which has seen a steep decline in traffic among its mostly Asian clientele.


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