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Even before Washington's coronavirus outbreak, Seattle Chinatown restaurants were hit hard

caption: Harry Chan, third generation owner of Tai Tung in Seattle's Chinatown International District.
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Harry Chan, third generation owner of Tai Tung in Seattle's Chinatown International District.
KUOW Photo/Ruby de Luna

If you think Seattle streets seem a little empty, it’s not your imagination. More people have been staying inside since last week with the number of coronavirus cases in Washington on the rise.

But even before the outbreak, businesses in Seattle’s Chinatown International District, have been feeling its effects since late January. Restaurants have been especially hit hard.

Jamie Lee works with a lot of the local businesses at the Seattle Chinatown International Preservation Development Authority. It’s almost lunch time as we walk down Maynard Avenue toward King Street to check in on one of the businesses.

“It’s kind of quiet today,” Lee said.

There are some pedestrians in the main drag, but there are usually more around this time.

“We’re going to walk into Tai Tung restaurant here, see if Harry is available to talk to us.”

That would be Harry Chan, Tai Tung’s third generation owner. He’s wearing a white apron and greets us with a big smile. Tai Tung is a Seattle institution. Chan says fewer people have been coming in to the restaurant since the news of the outbreak.

“Since the virus start in the beginning, we can tell the business slow down a little bit already,” Chan said.

Thankfully, take-out orders have been steady and that has helped. I ask what would he do if things continue to slow down?

“First, I have to think about my employees first, they have been here long time with me.”

Chan says he’ll wait and see how the situation plays out. Before we leave, he says if there are concerns about the virus spreading in the ID, consider this: “You don’t see too many people wear the mask and that means that tell you something that we’re OK.”

At Dim Sum King on Jackson Street, it’s the same story. Owner Amy Eng says people aren’t coming in to eat. Instead they’re ordering food to go. Overall she estimates that business is down by 50%. Still, she considers herself lucky compared to others who’ve been hit harder.

“Yesterday a business owner in Chinatown called my husband, thinking (of closing.”

The business owner had a bigger restaurant.

“They don’t have money (to) pay the people, pay the rent,” Eng said. “It’s very important.”

Eng and others like her worry how long the outbreak will last. The International District is home to many Asian immigrants living below poverty. Like many Seattle neighborhoods, most of the small businesses here are experiencing the impacts of new development. This public health crisis only compounds the situation.

Jamie Lee worries about the outbreak’s long term impact on the community. “You think of somebody who is one to two paychecks away from homelessness,” Lee said. “Our businesses are one to two months away from not being to make their rent or being able to do what they need to do.”

At Go Poke on King Street, we bump into owner Michael Le. Le says based on daily numbers, business has been fair. He says he’s been communicating with his staff about the outbreak, what to do to prevent spreading the virus, and to stay safe.

“We don’t want anybody to get sick and if they’re sick they should stay home because you’ll make everybody else sick as well.”

Le says he reminds employees they have paid time off for events like this. Overall, he says things are fine. So far.

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