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Local diners hoping to turn to their favorite Chinese restaurants during the COVID-19 pandemic have found them closed instead. D.C. ended on-premise consumption at bars and restaurants last month, permitting only carry-out and delivery services. Some restaurants have had to develop new systems and change their operations to dabble in take-out for the first time. Chinese restaurants, by comparison, typically have more experience in these areas. And yet, some have pressed pause on operations altogether.
A call to Hong Kong Carryout in Kingman Park yields a greeting and the message, “We are closed for the virus. Thank you for your understanding. God bless you. Thanks.”
“Due to the coronavirus we are temporarily closed until further notice,” a voice says on a recording when you dial Sichuan Pavilion downtown. “Sorry for the inconvenience. Thank you and be safe.”
At the entrance toChina Town Carryout in Mount Pleasant, a sign in English and Spanish reads: “For the safety of our employees, customers and public due to the emergency related to the coronavirus, we decided to close our store for two weeks. Thank you for your loyalty and please stay safe and healthy.”
And a sign on the door of Dragon Express in Shaw says, “We are temporarily closed due to health and safety concern over the COVID-19. Will re-open as soon as it is safe to do so. Thank you for your understanding. Take Care!”
Other places like Howard China, Chinese Dragon, Mayflower Restaurant, Grand China Carryout, Yum’s Carryout in Brightwood Park, China Boy, Da Hong Pao, Panda Gourmet, Shanghai Lounge, Dumplings & Beyond, Chalin’s Restaurant, Chinatown Garden, New Dynasty, Hunan Dynasty, Great Wall Szechuan House, and Chinatown Express have voicemails noting their reduced hours or temporary closure. Some just don’t answer their phones during their regular business hours.
Customers are left wondering why, especially as many of the shuttered restaurants lack a robust web or social media presence to communicate about their operations with patrons.
May Kuang, the wife of Chef Yuan Chen of Great Wall Szechuan House, says the Logan Circle restaurant first tried take-out and delivery before deciding to temporarily close. Kuang, in an interview conducted in Mandarin and translated into English, explains the decision to close was health-related.
Last April, Chen was hospitalized after a cooking accident left him with burns on his face, arms, and chest. He stayed in the ICU for 10 days and didn’t return to the kitchen until August. The couple decided to put the restaurant up for sale a few months later. Chen told City Paper in February that he thought he would benefit from a few years off to fully recover.
And earlier this year, Kuang started to hear from friends and relatives in China about the dangers of the coronavirus. “It was not like the flu,” she says, adding that she began to fear for the safety of her workers and customers. She also worried about contracting the virus, especially because she and her husband wondered if the language barrier would make it difficult for them to communicate with medical personnel should they be hospitalized.
When they tried take-out and delivery for a brief stint, Kuang says they took safety precautions to minimize interaction. She set up a partition in the restaurant. Orders were to be paid in advance, by credit or debit card over the phone, instead of with cash. Kuang told her delivery driver to be careful, wear a mask, and opt for contactless delivery. Still, with these precautions, she felt ill at ease. She thought, “What if someone had the virus but was asymptomatic?” She wondered whether she could really keep her family, her workers, and her customers safe.
Summarizing why they decided to close, Kuang notes they would rather shut the restaurant down for a few months than risk being infected or transmitting the virus to others. According to Kuang, Great Wall did not experience a decrease in business before closing. Nor did Kuang and Chen encounter xenophobia or discrimination related to the virus, though they heard of Chinese restaurant owners in New York who had.
Great Wall customers are loyal, says Kuang. Many come twice or three times a week and have frequented Great Wall for years. Some have reached out to see how they’re doing. So far, they haven’t received serious inquiries to buy their restaurant. But Kuang admits, quietly, that if they do sell Great Wall, it’s the customers they’ll miss.
The couple hasn’t applied for emergency relief such as grants and loans for the restaurant. Kuang notes she doesn’t want to add “ma fan,” or burden, as everyone is facing similar challenges and some need the aid more. Of their dozen or so employees, two are in China. Recognizing those here need to pay rent and other financial obligations, she has encouraged them to apply for unemployment benefits.
When asked when they may re-open, Kuang isn’t sure. They are waiting for “the OK” from the government. So far, they have been paying rent on the restaurant and plan to renew their business license before it expires in June.
Phillip Lui, who manages Chinatown Express downtown, explains employee safety was the “most important” reason behind their decision to close temporarily. “A majority of our employees do not live in D.C. and would have to take public transportation to come to work,” he says. The restaurant did not want their workers “to risk getting something that we could somewhat prevent.” They decided to limit the amount of interaction between workers and customers by shutting down until the situation improves.
Supply chain disruption presents another problem. Suppliers were cutting delivery routes and options. “The menu that would have been offered would be different than what we offered during normal business operations,” Lui says. The revenue they would have received from take-out and delivery orders would not have been enough, or barely enough, “to cover our expenses such as payroll, rent, and supplies.”
Other restaurants likely have their own reasons for closing. Lydia Chang, who runs the Peter Chang restaurant group’s business operations, explains, “It’s not easy to pinpoint exactly why Chinese restaurants choose to close,” given the unusual and constantly changing circumstances. “Nonetheless, it all comes down to personal choice—we have heard limited staff is a major reason. Every week less people show up at work because they are worried that they might get sick at work or on their way to work.”
She adds that the coronavirus and efforts to contain its spread is “going to affect the restaurant industry tremendously,” not just Chinese restaurants.
For now, Peter Chang restaurants are still open. Lydia explains they’ll remain that way for as long as possible for several reasons. They want to keep their staff on board. “They’re like family to us, to give up is never an option,” she says. They also want to be able to provide food to those in need and demonstrate that they’re adaptable by pivoting to take-out and delivery. “The way we operate now will shape where we’re heading in the future.”