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Small Business Owners Struggle to Stay Open in an Empty Oakland Chinatown

On a recent afternoon, Carl Chan marveled at the sight of nearly empty streets at 9th and Webster, in Oakland. Only two pedestrians lingered on a corner, waiting for the green light to cross. Before the pandemic, he’d see dozens of shoppers streaming through the intersection.

“Oh my God, this is Chinatown?” said Chan, president of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce.

Restaurants in the neighborhood were some of the first hit by the pandemic, Chan said. As early as January, Bay Area residents with Asian roots were getting word of the deadly toll of COVID-19 in China and canceled large banquets booked months in advance. Instead of shopping and gathering to celebrate the Chinese New Year, many opted to stay home.

“So even before the shelter in place, we had quite a few businesses already closed,” he said, standing near shuttered shops and “For Rent” signs. “The impact has been huge.”

While exact figures are hard to come by, Chan says he believes more than 30% of businesses in the neighborhood have closed their doors temporarily, or for good. According to the East Bay Economic Development Alliance, close to 900 businesses in Oakland discontinued operations in the first six months of stay-at-home restrictions.

Businesses in Chinatown have also had to contend with a drop in customers due to anti-Asian sentiment mistakenly connecting COVID-19 with all Asian people.

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—Farida Jhabvala Romero

Copyright 2020 KQED