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N.Y.’s Chinatown hard-hit by fear

These days the fear of SARS is hurting nearly all businesses in New York’s Chinatown, from stores and restaurants to city tour operators. NBC’s Brian Williams reports.
/ Source: NBC News

New York’s Chinatown has one of the highest density Chinese populations anywhere in the world outside of China. These days the fear of SARS is hurting nearly all businesses in the district, from stores and restaurants to city tour operators.

“We've seen a 10 to 15 percent drop-off on groups, particularly school groups who are not willing to come to the neighborhood,” says Seth Kamil of Big Onion Walking Tours.

SARS hasn’t arrived in Chinatown — at least not yet — but that hasn’t stopped the rumors from flying, including one that the owner of a local Chinese restaurant died of SARS. He did not get the illness — in fact, he’s alive and well.

As concern continues to grow, New York hospitals are taking every precaution against the illness. St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York is a level-one trauma unit, which means it would be on the front line in the event of a SARS outbreak.

Dr. Richard Westfahl of St. Vincent’s says the increase in tension reminds him of another scare not too long ago. “You know ..(it’s) like in the fall of 2001 with the anthrax cases — similar scare, similar concern.”

While there are suspected SARS cases in the United States, there has not been a confirmed case in New York City, but health officials are busy preparing just in case.

Anyone who walks into the hospital off the streets with symptoms even closely resembling those of SARS is immediately put in a “negative-pressure isolation room,” which effectively quarantines the patient. When walking into the room, a visitor notices a slight breeze in the doorway and a barely perceptible vacuum sucking air in.

New York hospitals are under orders to immediately alert the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention if a patient’s chest X-rays or laboratory tests point to a possible SARS infection.

But while lunch-hour crowds continued to pack the streets of Chinatown on Friday, merchants still found themselves fighting rumors that the illness has found its way to the district.

“Actually there’s no SARS in Chinatown. ... Everyone is healthy!” says a store keeper.

Even one confirmed case in New York City could mean huge economic losses for Chinatown’s business owners, but so far they insist the only thing to fear is fear itself.