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Pandemic-era stigma cost Asian restaurants $7.4B in lost revenue, new study finds

Anti-China discrimination during 2020 spilled over into non-Chinese Asian restaurants as well, researchers found.
A woman waits for her food outside a restaurant in New York's Chinatown
A restaurant in New York's Chinatown in 2020. Alexi Rosenfeld / Getty Images

Stigma against Chinese cuisine in the first year of the pandemic cost Asian restaurants in the United States an estimated $7.4 billion in lost revenue in 2020, a recent study found.

In a year in which tens of thousands of restaurants closed and many barely scraped by, the study — published online last week in the journal Nature Human Behaviour — reported that Asian restaurants across the country lost 18.4% more in foot traffic than other restaurants in 2020.

Prominent reports of anti-Asian racism, from harassment to direct violence, flooded the country in the years after the pandemic’s outbreak. Stop AAPI Hate, a national coalition that formed in response, recorded nearly 11,500 such incidents from March 2020 to March 2022.

But the goal of this study, in addition to determining “the cost of anti-Asian racism during the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to researchers from Boston College, the University of Michigan and Microsoft Research, was to highlight instances of anti-Asian discrimination that were less overt despite significant economic impact.

“When you have something like folks just choosing not to eat in a Chinese restaurant, that is something that’s a lot more subtle and under the surface, but it’s also a lot more common,” said co-author Masha Krupenkin, an assistant professor of political science at Boston College.

Pedestrians walk past Peach Farm in Boston's Chinatown on Jan. 15, 2021.
People walk past a restaurant in Boston's Chinatown in 2021. Erin Clark / Boston Globe via Getty Images file

Justin Lipsky, the director of public policy at Minnesota’s Chinese Community Center, said he saw these statistics play out in his area. In the months after the pandemic began in March 2020, Chinese American restaurants in the Twin Cities area faced hateful social media comments to smashed windows and other forms of vandalism.

He said the $7.4 billion figure is unsurprising, especially when taking into account compounding factors such as deep-rooted and racist stereotypes that Chinese food is cheap or unclean. Those perceptions made it even harder for these restaurants to recover as inflation skyrocketed, forcing them to raise their menu prices.

“When you go to, let’s say, an Italian restaurant and they raise the prices, people are more inclined to be willing to pay the higher price. But when you go into a smaller Chinese establishment, people may be less likely to be understanding of that, because it’s just what the association is of Chinese food in a lot of people’s minds,” Lipsky said. “So there’s this conflation of all these issues that have brought particular hardships to AAPI restaurants, and also specifically Chinese restaurants.”

The research team analyzed search terms to pinpoint the prevalence of negative attitudes toward China and people of Chinese descent, then examined consumers’ mobile device location data to determine the actual impact on restaurants. Additional data from surveys further illuminated anecdotal attitudes toward Chinese food.

What was particularly surprising to Krupenkin, however, was that Asian restaurants that were not Chinese suffered an even greater decrease in traffic than Chinese restaurants. After investigating this spillover of consumer discrimination, her team found that many people simply couldn’t tell different Asian cuisines apart.

“We actually ran kind of a similar survey where we had folks label the ethnicity of restaurants based on their name,” she said, “and you would have folks who would, say, mislabel ‘Tokyo Garden’ as Chinese.”

These patterns aligned with multiple surveys the researchers conducted to gauge consumer blame. In asking respondents which racial or ethnic group they believed to be “most responsible for bringing Covid-19” into the country, “Asians” and “Chinese” were the most common answers among those who did not choose “No racial or ethnic group is responsible.”

The placing of blame against ethnically Chinese people is then coupled with two trends found by the study: that survey respondents consistently overestimated the portion of Asian Americans who are Chinese, and that the respondents who overestimated most also tended to believe Chinese food presented a greater risk of contracting Covid-19.

Compared to the four years before the pandemic, anti-China web searches also surged after the pandemic — including phrases that had no relation to Covid-19, such as searches tying China to communism or longtime stereotypes about Chinese people and culture.

Searches of “Chinese people eat bats” and “Chinese people eat dogs” saw similar spikes after the United States issued its national emergency declaration in mid-March 2020. While the first search ("bats") was likely driven by political and media rhetoric at the time, the study noted, the second ("dogs") had no ties to Covid-19 discourse.

One of the most important drivers of effects like anti-Asian discrimination, Krupenkin noted, is the relationship between partisanship and human behavior. The report finds that the largest drops in traffic for Asian restaurant occurred in zip codes that voted more heavily for Donald Trump in 2016, who as president at the onset of the pandemic assigned blame to China and continually labeled Covid-19 the “Chinese virus.”

“People tend to really strongly follow cues from their party leaders,” she said. “So Trump setting an example and calling Covid 'the China virus' and really laying blame on China, I think, was one of the key drivers of the effects that we saw, especially among Republicans.”

Political leaders throughout history have repeatedly fanned the flames of xenophobic scapegoating in public health crises — blaming Jewish immigrants for tuberculosis, for example, or African immigrants for Ebola.

Though this new report was aimed at specifically quantifying the economic impact of pandemic-era racism against Asian American communities, Krupenkin said, future research could examine whether and how this kind of stigma might arise even without harmful messaging from public officials.