Sonoma County’s Asian-owned businesses ‘trying to hang in there’ as business slows during shelter-in-place order

While local agencies haven’t received any reports of anti-Asian discrimination in Sonoma County, many residents have heard harrowing stories of racism related to the coronavirus pandemic against Asian Americans elsewhere in the country.|

The day Sonoma County's public health officer ordered residents to stay home to curb the spread of the coronavirus, the Asian Food Market on Marlow Road in Santa Rosa was filled with panicked shoppers stocking up on supplies.

But since then, business has been slow.

“A lot of my customers … don't work now,” said Tracy Euong, store manager. “They don't want to spend money.”

As Asian American business owners around the U.S. have wondered whether bigotry during the coronavirus pandemic is hurting their bottom line, restaurateurs and market owners in Sonoma County say their recent struggles are more directly linked to the countywide stay-at-home order that has ground most commerce in the region to a halt.

Many of Euong's customers work hair and nail salons, which is not considered essential in the order. The order currently lasts through May 3, but could be extended at any time, and government officials have expressed this week that restrictive measures are likely to be eased gradually.

Euong worried about how long the stay-home order would last - and how that would affect the market.

“I hope everything will go back (to normal),” she said.

Sonoma County officials haven't received any reports of racism against the community that makes up about 4.6% of the region's population, according to 2019 census data. But stories of Asian Americans being harassed, attacked or spit on elsewhere in the U.S. concerned local officials enough to create a reporting website. The website, set to launch later this month, allows county residents to report any human rights violation.

The community has also banded together to support Asian American businesses during the slowdown. Nancy Wang is the president of the Redwood Empire Chinese Association, a Sonoma County nonprofit that provides educational and charitable services related to the preservation and sharing of Chinese culture. Before the countywide isolation order, she visited several local Asian restaurants.

“I noticed that business is so slow, especially (at) Chinese restaurants,” she said. “I want to support them.”

‘Not the only one'

Goji Kitchen on Mendocino Avenue is currently only doing takeout, since Sonoma County's stay-at-home order doesn't allow restaurants to offer dine-in service. But still, business has been much slower than usual, said Jennifer Chang, one of the restaurant's owners.

“We worry, but there's nothing we can do now,” Chang said. “We're just trying to hang in there, go one day at a time.”

Chang said she believes the decline in business is because of the stay-at-home order, rather than an example of anti-Asian discrimination. She said the order “affects everybody,” so her business is “not the only one” suffering right now.

Toyo Japanese Bistro also offers takeout but hasn't had many customers since the countywide order.

“I've been in the restaurant business (for) many years, (but it's) never been like this before,” said David Toyo, who owns the restaurant. “I worry about it getting worse, but I have confidence everything will get better.”

Despite the slow business, market and restaurant owners said that the few customers they do see frequently thank them for remaining open.

“We've had some customers come in saying, ‘Oh, we appreciate you being open,'?” said Philip Ma, whose family owns Asia Mart on Guerneville Road. “There's support.”

One customer told Ma that he understood some Asians are being subjected to racism right now, and he appreciated the market staying open during a difficult time.

Many Asian proprietors in Sonoma County said they haven't experienced any racism against their businesses, though they've heard the stories of anti-Asian discrimination across the country.

“(There are) very nice people around here - they always take care of our business,” Toyo said. “We're a very appreciative family.”

No local crimes reported

Santa Rosa Police Department hasn't received any reports of hate crimes against Asian Americans in its jurisdiction, nor has the Sonoma County Commission on Human Rights fielded any complaints of anti-Asian discrimination related to the coronavirus. But xenophobic incidents have occurred elsewhere across the country, at a time when the president and others have blamed China for the pandemic that is believed to have started in Wuhan.

The issue has become widespread enough that a professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University started a website to track racist incidents. Russell Jeung partnered with two organizations - Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council and Chinese for Affirmative Action - to set up the Stop AAPI Hate website, which allows people to fill out a form and report coronavirus-related discrimination.

Within the first two weeks, the website received 1,135 reports from across the country.

“We knew that there was growing anti-Asian xenophobia, but we had no documentation of it,” Jeung said. “People don't believe that Asian Americans face these types of issues, but by documenting it, we can demonstrate how widespread and pervasive the problem is.”

Roughly 43% of the incidents reported were in California, though Jeung explained that high percentage was likely because the project is California-based. The state with the second highest number of cases was New York, with about 19% of the total reported incidents.

Although shelter-in-place policies have been implemented across the nation, there are still a large number of discriminatory incidents being reported, according to the website's April 3 report. And 60% of the reports are from non-Chinese Asian Americans, which “shows it's racial profiling,” Jeung explained.

Verbal harassment and shunning are the most commonly reported types of discrimination. Coughing and spitting are incidents that appear to be “particular to this pandemic,” Jeung said.

“This reaction to Asians when diseases hit has always been a historical pattern,” Jeung said, citing the anti-Asian rhetoric that circulated during the smallpox epidemic in San Francisco in the 1870s and the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s. “But we also knew that Asian Americans always resisted. The news stories reflected that - that Chinatown rallies to bring back business and Asian American officials denounce inflammatory rhetoric.”

Wang hadn't heard reports of discriminatory incidents in Sonoma County, but she said racism elsewhere in the country, including New York City, greatly concerned her.

“I really hate to see it in our country,” she said. “We're no different than anybody else. Everybody should treat everybody with respect.”

Reporting site on way

Jeung received one report of discrimination through his website that took place in Santa Rosa. The individual, who is Chinese-Vietnamese, reported that children at a big-box store saw them coming down the aisle, started faking coughing and made sounds like “ching chong.”

The parents saw their children doing this, but did nothing.

“That is pretty reflective and common of the types of stories,” Jeung said. “Most are a lot more harrowing. Because this was kids who were bullies, they're a little bit more harmless. When adults do it, (there's) more anger.”

In response to reports of anti-Asian discrimination across the country, the Sonoma County Commission on Human Rights will launch a local reporting website later this month in multiple languages.

The Sonoma County Human Rights Visibility Project has been in the works for a while, but the coronavirus pandemic prompted the commission to fast forward the project, said Dmitra Smith, the commission chairwoman.

Like the Stop AAPI Hate website, the commission won't share personal information with anyone - the survey is just to gather data and “allow people to tell their stories,” Smith said. The website will remain active after the pandemic ends.

“We hope that people aren't experiencing human rights violations, but we know that they will,” she said. “We know that's just a part of what happens here … and we know that this will be exacerbated by this pandemic. We want to be there for people.”

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