“In general, all the Chinese restaurants that I know of dropped. Also, the Chinese supermarkets. They all dropped,” said Vuong, who has been in the restaurant business for 26 years.
Anna Hsu of Hsu's Gourmet echoed similar observations. Lunch traffic is down at least 30% compared to the usual traffic at the restaurant. "We used to have a crazy-busy lunchtime," said Hsu, whose location in Peachtree Center caters to downtown office workers.
“I heard (from) some of our friends that own a restaurant, and their business has been down 50%,” Hsu said of other local Chinese restaurant operators. Her frustration stems from the fact that there have been no confirmed coronavirus cases in the state. “There is nothing going on in Georgia,” she said.
Hsu’s restaurant has also been the target of prank phone calls. “‘Are you serving dog, cat?’ They are making all kinds of jokes on the phone. I tell my employees to hang up,” she said. “It’s really a bad feeling.”
Vuong and Hsu both hope the steep decline in business is temporary, but they are concerned.
“This is only the first two, three weeks,” Vuong said. He has considered doing a special promotion to attract more business. “Even if we do a promotion, people are scared. They don’t come out. We need to think about pickup, to-go orders. That’s another option,” he said.
Metro Atlanta is home to nearly 450 Chinese restaurants. According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau statistics, 19% of all Georgia restaurants are Asian-owned.
Georgia Restaurant Association President and CEO Karen Bremer has fielded concerns from some of the organization's Chinese members. "Chinese and Chinese-American restaurants are reporting a sudden and swift decline in business due to inaccurate correlations drawn between dining in these restaurants and coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)," Bremer said in a prepared statement. "It cannot be overstated that all restaurants, regardless of cuisine or ethnic origin of its owners, are required to operate at the same rigorous health standards required by the state of Georgia. It is imperative to understand that while anxieties may be high, we should not target any one group or operate in a climate of fear that is not based on facts. I ask the great people of Georgia to continue to patronize these restaurants across the state and show support to your communities."
Bremer noted that every restaurant needs to adhere to its employee health plan and how employee sickness is handled. “If an employee comes in sick, you send them home. In certain instances, they need to get a doctor note to come back to work. There has been nothing to substantiate or definitively state that this is a food-borne illness.”
While the restaurant association continues to monitor the situation, so, too, are food businesses small and large.
Atlanta-based Waffle House operates more than 1,900 units across 25 states. The company has become known for its preparedness planning; even the Federal Emergency Management Agency relies on the company’s disaster management index to determine the effect of a storm and the assistance required for recovery. Right now, it’s wait and see for the 24/7 diner.
“We are doing what the CDC and local health agencies are advising,” said Waffle House spokesperson Njeri Boss. “We are in a monitoring situation.”
“The coronavirus outbreak is rapidly evolving and spreading,” said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. “Cases are appearing worldwide without a known source of exposure, and successful containment at U.S. borders is becoming problematic.
Public health officials said they did not know whether the spread of the disease to the United States would be mild or severe, but that Americans should be prepared for a major disruption to their daily lives.
»RELATED: What you need to know about coronavirus if you live in Georgia
RELATED: Coronavirus - Complete coverage
The most effective way to protect against coronavirus is the same as the flu — wash your hands with soap and water, avoid touching your nose and mouth and stay away from sick people.
Although there are no confirmed coronavirus cases in Georgia, nearly 200 residents in the state are being quarantined in their homes after returning from recent trips to China. Each day or so, some of those in quarantine complete the 14 days, which is considered the incubation period for the virus, while new residents who recently traveled to China get added to the list. Those in quarantine at home are being asked to monitor themselves for illness and report to local officials any symptoms of the coronavirus, such as coughing. An electronic registry keeps track of the quarantines.
- Staff reporter Helena Oliviero contributed to this report.