by Kamna Shastri
Even before companies started ordering their employees to work from home and Gov. Jay Inslee proclaimed a mandatory stay-at-home order, Seattle’s Chinatown-International District had already seen a decline in business after news of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan began to make the rounds.
Since late January and early February, the neighborhood hub for Asian immigrant businesses and senior housing, has seen a decline in business revenue and foot traffic. The initial downturn followed a pattern of racist scapegoating that wrongly targeted Asians as responsible for the spread of COVID-19. Once mandatory stay-in-place orders came from the state, the neighborhood’s small businesses were battered. Some restaurants have had to close because they can’t afford staff, others like Jade Garden have moved to delivery and pick-up orders only.
A trifecta of neighborhood organizations – The Chinatown International District Business Improvement Area, Friends of Little Saigon, and Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation District Authority – have created a Relief Fund to help support local businesses. As of April 7, the relief fund has collected $150,000 in donations, a $100,000 of seed money from Vulcan Inc. On April 2, the fund announced its first call for applications for $1,500 grants for small restaurants and businesses.
Neighborhood organizations have always worked together, but the current public health crisis and its economic fallout have required everyone to be extra coordinated. International Community Health Services (ICHS) is offering a drive through COVID-19 testing on weekdays from 11am – 3pm. Many of the buildings west of I-5 (which splits the neighborhood in two) are senior housing and residents have had some issues with food insecurity.
InterIm Community Development Association has been delivering groceries to low-income residents and residents with limited English-speaking skills for the past few weeks. Deputy Director Tom Im says they plan to scale up delivery to 600-700 units this week.
SCIDpda’s Director of Community Initiatives, Jamie Lee says they are performing wellness checks with residents, calling to ask how residents are doing and whether they may need anything for their home.
The Chinese Information and Services Center has also been reaching out to its clients. Executive Director Michael Itti said in an email to the Emerald. “We are using technology to connect with families to support the learning needs of their children,” he said “And, we are responding to urgent requests for assistance regarding unemployment benefits, food, and healthcare access.”
Valerie Tran, Operations Director for Friends of Little Saigon says that when state or city policies and resources are introduced, follow-through and engaging with the community falls on neighborhood organizations. “There is an abundance of information coming out about public health, public safety. We want to make sure the information comes out in a way that is easy to understand,” she said. That makes being streamlined, communicative, and well-connected extremely crucial.
SCIDpda, CIDBIA, and Friends of Little Saigon have created multilingual resource guides with information about eviction moratoriums, utility deferrals, and low-interest loans. In addition, Tran says staff members have been calling, texting, and using social media to inform and support business owners.
All resource materials are simplified for easy understanding and then translated. “Culturally there is also a lot of fear, not knowing what’s going on, being afraid of harassment and scamming,” said Tran. The extra steps can take time, but they are necessary so that non-English speaking community members can also stay abreast of developments and get the most accurate information.
Support and long-term resilience
East of I-5 is Little Saigon, a beacon of the Vietnamese and Southeast Asian communities. This part of the neighborhood has more commercial storefronts, grocery stores, and eateries than residential buildings, as compared to the parts of the neighborhood west of the bridge. Without residential foot traffic there are fewer people on the sidewalk. “We don’t have that critical mass of people on that side of the neighborhood to frequent the businesses,” said Tran.
Friends of Little Saigon is working on marketing businesses that are still open, and promoting currently operating restaurants on social media every week. Grocery stores like Viet Wah and Hao Hao market are still open and shoppers still frequent the stores to stock up on ingredients.
Lee has been working at the SCIDpda for six years and says it seemed as though the neighborhood had just seen the other end of a long recovery from the 2008 Recession before the COVID-19 crisis hit. While two weeks of adjusting a business model or losing revenue is a short-term struggle, the state-wide public health restrictions are bringing up concerns about how businesses will be able to be resilient throughout the limitations.
“I think people are getting concerned about how long this will be going on,” said Tran. “How do we think about long-term recovery? It is a whole other thing to get your head around if this is months long.”
Lee says that the community will need consistent support even after the crisis is over. The kind of support, funding and interest in keeping small businesses thriving would have to continue with the same kind of good-will to truly bounce back. “This is an interesting thing, people are going to want to move on and kind of be whole again and feel like the world is whole again but in reality we are still going to have a big hole we are digging out of,” said Lee.
There are ways to reach out and help. “We are in this together,” said Lee. “If you feel up to it, come out and order food to go in the neighborhood.”
Donate to the relief fund: https://scidpda.org/cidbizrelief/
Community Resources: cidbia.org/covid-19-business-resources\
Connect with organizations on Instagram and social media:
Friends of Little Saigon – @flsseattle
Chinatown ID Business Improvement Area – @iheartid
SCIDpda – @scidpda
Kamna Shastri is a Seattle based journalist
Featured Image: InterIm CDA Community organizer Eliza Guan delivering a bag of rice and supplement care package to a senior resident of International House. Photo by: Pinky Gupta, InterIm Community Development Association.