Jewish Federation, government officials, stand by Asian American community
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Jewish Federation, government officials, stand by Asian American community

Fear of coronavirus cause customers to avoid Asian businesses

Josh Sayles addresses reporters 
at a press conference in support of 
Asian Americans.
Photo by Justin Vellucci
Josh Sayles addresses reporters at a press conference in support of Asian Americans. Photo by Justin Vellucci

Local Jewish and Asian American leaders joined a bevy of elected officials Friday at an Oakland restaurant to drive home one message: Chinese food does not spread coronavirus.

Asian restaurants and businesses in Pittsburgh have reported 20% to 40% drops in revenue in the past five or six weeks, since the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, began to spread — first in China, then worldwide, officials said. As of the March 6 press conference, which attempted to tackle xenophobia around notions that Asians are more likely to be carriers of the disease, there were two COVID-19 cases reported in Pennsylvania. None had been reported in Pittsburgh as of press time.

There are more than 90 Asian restaurants in Pittsburgh’s East End alone — about one in three of them are located in Squirrel Hill, officials said.

“The Jewish community and the Chinese community, we’re neighbors,” said Josh Sayles, director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council, before Friday’s press conference. “The Jewish community is the largest minority community in Squirrel Hill and the Asian community is the second-largest minority community there. We’re linked — this impacts our neighborhood and the local economy.”

Pittsburgh City Councilperson Corey O’Connor, who represents District 5, encompassing Squirrel Hill South, called Asian American business “part of our everyday economy in Pittsburgh.”

“Without them, half of Squirrel Hill would be empty,” O’Connor said.

Before the Friday press conference began, government officials, including Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and U.S. House members Mike Doyle (D-District 18) and Conor Lamb (D-District 17) sampled Asian dishes at Night Market Gourmet on Atwood Street. The establishment’s co-owner, Mike Chen, also operates Everyday Noodles on Forbes Avenue in Squirrel Hill.

“We’re here and we are fighting this with every Pittsburgher, so let’s fight together,” Chen told reporters.

Marian Lien, president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans, introduced speakers.

“The coronavirus is not a food-borne illness, whether your food comes from China or Fox Chapel,” said Doyle, speaking in front of window dressing marked with Chinese calligraphy and the expression ‘‘Meeting is a wonderful thing.” “We wanted to be here to dispel rumors about COVID-19 (based on) ignorance and fear.”

“It feels as if it’s a patriotic duty at this point to go to your local Asian restaurant, your local Chinese restaurant, and patronize them,” said Pittsburgh City Councilperson Erika Strassburger, who represents District 8, encompassing part of Squirrel Hill. “I will be coming here again with my family.”

There are about 500,000 Asians and Asian Americans living in Pennsylvania and many are fearful of the anti-immigrant rhetoric some espouse in connection with coronavirus fears, said Mohan Seshadri, executive director of the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs.

“Remember,” Seshadri said, “shop at Asian business, be friends with your Asian neighbors, wash your hands.”

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said the city is operating under the notion that coronavirus cases appearing in Pittsburgh “will be inevitable.” Officials, he said, are working daily with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and others, to address the potential outbreak here.

“As we go through this as a city, let us remember that we’re all part of it,” Peduto said. “We don’t want to give up on our ability to be compassionate.”

Others echoed that sentiment, invoking Pittsburgh’s unity in times of crisis.

“What we do in Pittsburgh is we pull together, we root for each other and we support each other,” Fitzgerald said. “Let’s keep doing just that.” pjc

Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.

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