Covid and racism are devastating to many Asian-owned small companies

Leo Lee and his wife Lydia relied on takeaway and delivery services to keep their Los Angeles restaurant, RiceBox, afloat during the pandemic.

Source: Leo Lee

Like many small business owners around the country, Leo and Lydia Lee saw the revenue from their Los Angeles restaurant when the Covid pandemic broke out.

They also endured anti-Asian incidents.

The Chinese-American couple has been running their Cantonese BBQ restaurant RiceBox in downtown LA since September 2018. The majority of customers came from local businesses thanks to catering contracts and the crowd for lunch.

When companies closed their doors, the couple chose to stay open. They survived by continuing to offer pickup and delivery services. Still, the business fell by about 70%.

Then came the phone calls.

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“We got a lot of prank calls,” said Leo Lee. “People would ask, ‘Do you serve bats? Do you serve Covid?”

Another time a customer pushed past the blocked front door, where orders were being taken instead of in-store, coughed in the direction of the Lees, and went back out.

“We were scared,” said Leo Lee.

The pandemic has dealt a double blow to Asia-American / Pacific Islander (AAPI) small business owners.

According to a September 28 to November 30, 2020 from the Asian / Pacific Islander American Chamber of Commerce and Entrepreneurship. Almost every third AAPI business owner has experienced anti-AAPI sentiment due to the pandemic, the survey found.

“The rise in anti-Asian racism and violence has continued to harm small business owners during this global pandemic,” said Chiling Tong, President and CEO of National ACE.

“We have a vaccine against Covid, but not a vaccine against hate.”

The number of hate crimes against Asians in the United States rose 169% from Q1 2020 to Q1 2021, according to the California State University’s Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism in San Bernardino found. From March 19 to March 31, 6,603 incidents were reported to Stop AAPI Hate, including verbal harassment (65%), avoidance (18.1%), and physical assault (12.6%).

This is what many Asian Americans feared: A recent Pew poll found that a third feared someone could threaten or physically assault them.

Joanne Kwong, president of the family-run Pearl River Mart in New York, sees this fear in her employees every day. Known as the first Sino-American department store when it opened 50 years ago, the store is now divided into three smaller locations. They closed completely for a few months last March before two gradually reopened. In October, the company added a new store, Pearl River Mart Foods.

Joanne Kwong, President of Pearl River Mart, stands in front of the company’s newest location in Soho, New York City.

Pearl River Mart

Since reopening, Kwong has had to adjust their employees’ shifts to make them feel safe while commuting to and from work. It has also changed store opening hours and closed earlier before it gets dark.

“We’ve all had incidents where people might have said something [racist] on the street, “said Kwong, the daughter of Chinese immigrants from the Philippines.

“We have employees who have actually been pushed or spat at.”

In addition to the psychological toll, the pandemic has also had economic ramifications. Business initially fell about 90% and is now hovering around 40% of its pre-pandemic level, she said.

Kwong received a loan from the state paycheck protection program in the first round of the program. Thanks to an administrative error at her first bank, she still has to be approved for the second PPP round, which now has no more money for most borrowers. Fortunately, Kwong has also applied for help from a municipal financial institution that is still open to filing new applications with the Small Business Administration.

“We’re on needles and needles,” she said. “When will that end?”

Kwong said she is also fortunate to have a great command of English, unlike many AAPI business owners.

In addition to a language barrier making the application process difficult, cultural issues also play a role, especially since two-thirds of the community were born outside the US, said Bill Imada, founder and chairman of IW Group, a minority advertising and marketing agency. When the pandemic broke out, Imada began helping AAPI business owners navigate available assistance.

“Many of these immigrants have never asked the government for assistance,” said Imada, who is Japanese-American. “Sometimes they come from countries where they are concerned about the government, they don’t trust the banks.”

We have employees who have actually been pushed or spat at.

Joanne Kwong

President of Pearl River Mart

Half of the AAPI entrepreneurs applied for PPP last year and 80% of them received a loan, according to the Small Business Majority.

Now that smaller banks are involved in PPP, he has seen more AAPI companies get credit. In addition, restaurant owners can apply for grants through the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, and venues can apply for a Shuttered Venue Operators Grant grant. For those who qualify, economic damage loans are still available.

The private sector also makes its contribution. For example, GrubHub announced that in May, AAPI Heritage Month, it will donate all proceeds from its Donate the Change program to restaurants owned by AAPI. Yelp, which saw searches for Asian-owned companies up more than 3,000% year over year in February, has made it easier to find and support these companies.

It is this surge of support and unity within the AAPI community that has been the silver lining, Kwong said.

“The community has been very inspiring and has a stronger cohesion like I’ve never seen before,” she said.

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