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Las Vegas’ Asian businesses felt the coronavirus’ financial effects sooner than most

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Wade Vandervort

A Las Vegas Chinatown mall is seen in 2019

Mon, Mar 23, 2020 (2 a.m.)

The kitchen staff at a highly rated noodle house in Las Vegas is going about its business in preparation for the lunch rush.

Out comes a fusion rice platter, a plate of pork belly bao and a bowl of spicy tan tan udon soup that will make your temples sweat. The restaurant—Cafe Sanuki, although it could be one of many in the district where business has fallen off—prides itself on the quality of its ingredients, the care of its preparation and the affordability of its menu pricing, which have combined to inspire comments like “perfect!” and “hidden gem” in online reviews. In normal times, the place draws a brisk lunch crowd.

Yet on this day, the spacious eatery is practically empty. At 12:38 p.m., there are nine diners seated in a room that could hold several times that many.

It’s a scene that has been playing out across Chinatown for weeks, since shortly after the new coronavirus began spreading in Wuhan.

“I’ve talked to several [local Asian business owners], and they’re estimating that they’ve seen a 40% to 60% drop in business,” says Sonny Vinuya, president of the Las Vegas Asian Chamber of Commerce. “I don’t have concrete figures—these are just people estimating. But some are laying off people, sending them home. We’ve also heard of three establishments that have temporarily closed.”

The Asian community in Las Vegas was the first to feel the economic effects of the outbreak and therefore has suffered the longest, starting in late January, when the Trump administration imposed restrictions on travel to the U.S. from China. Vinuya says the impact was immediate and widespread, affecting not only Chinatown but businesses throughout the Valley.

Unjustified fears of the disease prompted local diners to stop patronizing Asian restaurants. And as the travel restrictions took hold, the daily busloads of Chinese and California tourists streaming to Chinatown dwindled and then disappeared. Meanwhile, local companies that specialize in tourism and convention business from China and other Asian companies virtually came to a standstill, Vinuya says.

In response, the Asian Chamber held meetings with Rep. Susie Lee, D-Nev., and the Nevada office of the federal Small Business Administration to advocate for federal emergency relief funding for businesses.

On March 17, the chamber’s efforts bore fruit when the SBA signed off on an economic disaster relief loan program available to Nevada small-business owners, allowing them to apply for low-interest 30-year loans (see sidebar).

“We’re just telling people to hang in there, and we’re trying to help anyone we can,” Vinuya says.

Another bright spot in an otherwise bleak time came when the Asian Chamber’s counterpart organizations—the Vegas Chamber, Latin Chamber, Urban Chamber, etc.—reached out early on to offer support and assistance.

“That felt really good, because one of the things we’re working on—especially the minority chambers—is collaboration and working together,” he says.

Still, as Vinuya notes compassionately, what happened in Chinatown turned out to be a dismaying preview of how the outbreak would affect the entire Valley. Within 72 hours of his interview with the Weekly came a series of dramatic announcements—Strip resort closures, cancellation of the NFL Draft’s public events in Las Vegas, cancellation of classes in the Clark County School District and across the state, and more.

But as Las Vegas deals with the deepening economic uncertainty over the virus, Vinuya says the chamber was working to dispel the myth that patronizing Asian businesses in the Valley would increase the risk of contracting the disease. As with other businesses, he says, the chamber’s members have taken precautions to protect their customers’ health.

“We’re struggling like everybody else,” he says. “But we live here locally, and we use American products from American distributors.”

This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.

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