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Coronavirus panic isn’t just fear and hate, it also cloaks business as usual at Chinese restaurants

March 12, 2020, 12:00 PM UTC

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The seventh-deadliest tornado in U.S. history killed 158 people over 38 minutes as it lashed Joplin, Mo., in May 2011. But something stood out to Craig Fugate, FEMA’s director at the time: Joplin’s two Waffle House restaurants stayed open throughout the ordeal. He coined the Waffle House Index, a kind of disaster barometer. “The success of the private sector in preparing for and weathering disasters is essential to a community’s ability to recover in the long run,” a FEMA blog about the index reported the next year.

This year, as the coronavirus pandemic engulfs the globe, epidemiologists have yet to suss out a similar canary in the coal mine. But since its inception in a Wuhan seafood market in late December, America has shot a skittish side-eye toward the nation’s 40,000 Chinese restaurants—more than the combined sum of McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s locations. It hasn’t been pretty.

As the crisis has globalized in the past several weeks, the focus has shifted from the biological impact—infection, quarantine, death—to the far broader economic impact: the worst day on Wall Street since 2008’s meltdown; concerts and conferences canceled left and right; and the pathologization of common crossroads like shopping malls, airports, and subway platforms. Community spread is essential to daily life—at basketball games, Broadway shows, church services, nursing homes, and schools.

Political scientists warn to “cancel everything.” Seattle is banning gatherings of 250 or more. But coronanomics are rooted in deeply American business dynamics. Italy went on lockdown and countered by pausing all mortgage and debt payments. By contrast, after Austin city officials cancelled SXSW, the conference laid off 30% of its staff and suggested ending the city’s annual boost, which was $355 million in 2019.

“There is no class difference in virus spread, but we may see a class difference in outcomes,” says Catherine Herzog, an epidemiologist at Penn State’s Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics. In that environment, as writer Anand Giridharadas tweets, “Coronavirus makes clear what has been true all along. Your health is as safe as that of the worst-insured, worst-cared-for person in your society. It will be decided by the height of the floor, not the ceiling.”

Chinese restaurants nationwide were already teetering on the brink of mass extinction. The coronavirus crisis has been more of a final straw than a swinging ax. But Chinese restaurants’ outsize pariah status is telling.

“There are Chinese-American farmers in California who are fifth-generation but forever foreign,” says Nancy Yao Maasbach, president of the Museum of Chinese in America. “Theoretically we have been accepted, but it’s a volatile acceptance.” The essayist Wesley Yang wrote that Asian-Americans seem to be “a mass of stifled, repressed, abused, conformist quasi-robots who simply do not matter, socially or culturally.”

Those tensions have dark precedents. Founded as a slave-based economy for European refugees and immigrants, the United States infamously debuted its first federal immigration law, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, to mitigate low wages and other labor woes (after using indentured Chinese coolies to build the First Transcontinental Railroad). Half a century later, white farmers in California jealous of their Japanese-American rivals advocated successfully for internment camps. Today, Asians in America are both celebrated as a “model minority” but also kept in an economic vise as a disproportionate servant class of restaurant kitchen workers, food delivery workers, dry cleaners, and nail salon workers—wage slaves navigating an obstacle course of razor-thin margins without sick days, the ability to work from home, or relief from their daily overdose of toxic stress. The gig economy has further ravaged restaurant labor.

Without an end in sight to the coronavirus crisis, it has been largely framed—provocatively and unfairly—by its Chinese origin. Such hostility exacts a steep price: mass Chinatown closures in London and New York, for example.

“Chinese restaurants are pervasive but incredibly fractured, so they don’t have the deep pockets or reserves to weather big disruptions the way chain restaurants can. A monthlong disruption will cause many to go under,” says Jennifer 8. Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles. “Also, from the Chinese-restaurant workers’ perspective, because the businesses are so decentralized and splintered, you can’t do a turnkey sick-leave policy like some chain restaurants have recently announced. So both the restaurants and workers are in very fragile positions.”

While Chinese culture prides itself on a work ethic of dāng zījǐ de láobǎn (“being your own boss”), the economic reality of Chinese-restaurant workers in America is a harsh contrast to that proud fantasy: grueling, humbling work without end.

“Chinese Americans—especially restaurant workers—are trapped on a hamster wheel, and it’s not even the best hamster wheel,” Maasbach says. “Chinatowns aren’t tourist traps. They’re support structures. There are 66 family associations just in New York.”

In fairness, the times have changed, and Chinese restaurants haven’t. “The overall insecurity is because of an inability to upgrade their setup. They’re stuck in lunch-special thinking. They don’t have the capacity to adapt, even given an opportunity,” says Yong Zhao, CEO of Junzi Kitchen, a fast-casual chain with $5 million in venture capital and a plan to supplant old-school Chinese restaurants. “Dinosaurs died because they lacked the right traits for survival; today those are information, technology, and transparency.”

Chinese restaurants’ brokenness is also systemic, not entirely of their own making. Coronavirus is outing the world’s largest economy as home to a toxic for-profit public health system. Companies are suddenly unveiling paid sick days as emergency luxuries. U.S. workers are earning as little as 16 cents per hour to produce hand sanitizer for Corcraft, the commercial arm of New York State’s prison system. An economy built on income inequality—where 25.2% of households are unbanked or underbanked, 46% of families cannot scrounge $400, and 78% of workers live paycheck-to-paycheck—is one reason FEMA has begun financial literacy and preparedness programs.

“Disasters have disproportionate impact on marginalized groups,” says Patrick Roberts, author of Disasters and the American State. “They bring to light social problems that were already there. We saw that sharply after Hurricane Katrina. With coronavirus, people can work from home, but they’ll order delivery. I always think about that NBC reporter who broke Ebola quarantine for fast food.”

Coronavirus epidemiology has not yet found its Waffle House moment. But Chinese restaurants make a compelling case as bellwethers for what’s formally known as the Social Vulnerability Index. In short, we know for whom the bao tolls. It tolls for thee.

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—How coronavirus is affecting the global concert industry
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—Some of the most extreme ways companies are combating coronavirus
—How Europe is adapting to the coronavirus outbreak
China’s box office was supposed to surpass North America’s this year.
—Growing coronavirus threat weighs on Apple
—Nearly half of American travelers are reconsidering their international trips due to coronavirus

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