Metro Atlanta immigrants face a 2nd Lunar New Year of pandemic pain

Chinese Americans took early precautions, then worried about racism

The awful longevity of the pandemic hadn’t fully dawned on East Cobb mom and Chinese immigrant Su Su until she realized she’s about to mark a second Lunar New Year without the usual big gatherings of area friends and family.

Chinese Americans and many other Asian immigrants have canceled what normally would be weeks of events and are hunkering down before the Year of the Ox starts Friday.

Shoppers are still coming in for flowers and decorations as well as fruits, candies and food traditionally served at this time of year to celebrate the start of the Chinese lunar calendar, also known as Chinese New Year. But gift buying is down, shop owners say. And so is the mood.

“The parties are gone,” said Su, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina. “We might still greet people online.”

The COVID-19 drama seems to have dragged on forever. But for many Asian Americans here, it began rearranging personal lives earlier than for most metro Atlantans.

In January of 2020, Chinese immigrants in Georgia began hearing alarming news from people in China about a virus centered around Wuhan. By early February, some said they worried about coming in contact with people who might have been exposed to the virus while traveling in China.

Business at a variety of metro Atlanta Chinese restaurants and other Asian dining spots quickly plummeted. Some shoppers started avoiding Asian markets. Worried parents pulled their kids from weekend Chinese language classes until they shifted to online lessons. More Chinese Americans began wearing masks.

That was more than a month before most metro Atlantans began to even contemplate making serious changes because of the virus. Georgia’s first confirmed cases — a Fulton County father and son who had just returned from Italy — weren’t reported until early March. It wasn’t until the second week of March before many metro Atlanta public schools halted in-person classes and major companies ordered office employees to work from home.

Figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show reported COVID-19 cases among Asian Americans are sharply lower than white, non-Hispanic people after adjusting for population size. The hospitalization and death rates are a bit higher.

Grace Chai, a family practice physician in Duluth, estimates that about 80% of her 5,000 patients are Chinese Americans, most of them first-generation immigrants. Many are relatively young, front-line workers.

She said she isn’t aware of any who tested positive for COVID-19 or showed likely symptoms in the first couple months of the pandemic, when concern was highest about travelers from China. Eventually, she did have patients with COVID. She said she knows of about 300 confirmed cases among her patients. Five or six were serious enough to require hospitalization but none died.

“I think Chinese people are more cautious than the general public,” said Chai, who is from China.

Wearing masks has become a cultural hot button among some Americans. But Chai doesn’t see that with her own patients.

They come in wearing masks, often two of them, as well as gloves and eye protection, she said. And they understand why masks are important.

Many Chinese Americans — and other Asians — interviewed said they feared they would be targeted for racism as a result of the pandemic.

“I think for a little while, most of the Chinese didn’t feel very safe,” said Bing Zeng, the chairwoman of the Atlanta chapter of the Association of Chinese Professionals.

Most of of those interviewed said they were uncomfortable when former President Donald Trump often used the phrase “China virus,” and blamed China for the pandemic. One suggested that a U.S. leader would never use that kind of a phrase if a virus began in Britain, Ireland or Israel.

None of the people interviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution said they had experienced an overt or aggressive act of racism during the pandemic. But they recalled news reports about attacks on Asians in other states.

Some of those interviewed described being more frequently asked, “Are you from China?” a question they thought might be a precursor to a confrontation. Others said people stared at them differently, especially if they wore a mask.

Yuan Jiang, the owner of Chinese restaurant J Bistro, faced similar issues, but he said U.S.-born customers have also gone out of their way to encourage him as his business struggled.

While business has been brutal for all kinds of sit-down restaurants during the pandemic, it started sooner for those who saw a sharp drop in Chinese customers early on.

“It’s terrible,” said Jian Leung, a co-owner of the Oriental Pearl restaurant in Chamblee, who isn’t planning any Chinese New Year celebrations this year.

Last year, the pandemic led organizers to cancel an annual Chinese New Year event that had been expected to draw 800 people to Gwinnett County’s Infinite Energy Center. Plans for this year’s events were shelved.

At Jusgo Supermarket in Duluth, managers dropped the idea of a celebratory dinner for employees. But workers will still receive traditional red envelopes with cash to mark the season, a worker said.

In Chamblee, virtually no one was browsing for Lunar New Year purchases at Maomi Bookstore on a recent afternoon.

“Normally, this is our busiest season,” manager Willow Chen said.

But business at some Asian food markets quickly rebounded after initial concerns in the first weeks of the pandemic last year.

Last year, some Asian businesses were among the first locally to put COVID-19 precautions in place. Customers walking into City Farmers Market locations in metro Atlanta still pass by thermal screening monitors. The stores have been checking customers’ temperatures since March.

“The Chinese immigrant community has been on high alert for a long time,” said Su, the East Cobb mom.

Chinese and Asian Americans in metro Atlanta:

Chinese immigrants in metro Atlanta say they felt a particular focus on themselves early in the pandemic. The virus that causes COVID-19 in humans is believed to have started in China, and former President Donald Trump regularly referred to it as the “China virus.”

Nearly 30,000 people in metro Atlanta were born in mainland China and many of them have lived in the United States for decades and become U.S. citizens. More than 200,000 other area residents were born in other Asian nations, according to federal data analyzed by the Atlanta Regional Commission.