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San Francisco’s Chinatown Opens for Cautious Lunar New Year Revelry Despite Omicron 


FILE - People wear masks as they shop in the Chinatown neighborhood of San Francisco, California, July 31, 2020.
FILE - People wear masks as they shop in the Chinatown neighborhood of San Francisco, California, July 31, 2020.

George Chen’s high-end China Live restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown has lost 90% of its Lunar New Year bookings made by company parties and big families fearing the spread of COVID-19 as the omicron variant rampages across the United States. Three of his 100 employees have gotten the disease since the omicron surge began.

But his three-floor restaurant is not turning away dine-in customers like a year ago. No state or local government has ordered shutdowns. Smaller parties can still come in for informal, private meals, and Chen hopes to see more of those gatherings ahead of the global Chinese population’s major annual holiday, which falls on February 1 this year.

“Last year I think we were in the middle of a shutdown – during that time we couldn’t even [be] allowed to do outdoor seating, forget indoors,” Chen told VOA on Tuesday. “This year is tough. … We’ll keep our fingers crossed and hopefully people will feel more comfortable, get vaccinated and come out and enjoy themselves.”

The 64-year-old career restaurateur’s story serves as a microcosm for San Francisco, keeper of the best-known Chinatown in the United States, as the Year of the Tiger approaches.

A person crosses Grant Avenue in Chinatown in San Francisco, March 25, 2021.
A person crosses Grant Avenue in Chinatown in San Francisco, March 25, 2021.

Countless individuals have decided on their own to stay home, auguring thin crowds, but San Francisco’s signature Chinese New Year Festival and Parade are scheduled to roll floats and feature lion dances in densely populated hilly streets lined with red-festooned Chinese-owned shops. The city's annual Chinese New Year street fairs are on, as well.

“This year because of the vaccinations, because we have a better understanding of the variants and the pandemic, we are cautiously optimistic to proceed forward with a live parade,” parade organizer spokesperson William Gee said. “We’re hoping to bring back a lot of the iconic memories and performances that people remember by just coming out and watching the parade.”

Event organizers ask that everyone there be vaccinated or come with proof of a negative COVID-19 test a few days ahead.

Locals told VOA say they’ve had enough of staying indoors.

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Lin Wei, 50, for example, says he plans to go out. The sanitation worker came from Guangdong province 11 years ago for work and misses the energy of a live Lunar New Year celebration. Lunar New Year in China involves large, extended family reunions, weeks of fireworks and the equivalent of a formal spring cleaning for each household.

“The last two years (the celebrations) stopped, so this year there might be a bit more, and if I’ve got time I’ll show up,” Lin said. On the chance of catching COVID-19, he said, “I’ve grown numb to that over the past two years.”

But Lin said he would avoid taking his family to the festivities as a health precaution.

Sherwin Won, 69, a retired university clinical lab scientist, plans to shun the traditional large family reunion and focus on spring cleaning. As a family, the San Francisco native said, “we talked about it and discussed it and said, ‘we’re going to celebrate it six months later.’”

Like Chen’s restaurant, open events and spaces in San Francisco’s Chinatown generally are expected to draw thin crowds as people decide to stay home and avoid the risk of contagion. Chen estimates that 50% of the district’s stores have closed during the pandemic, possibly for good.

Paper goods and variety stores in San Francisco did only sporadic business this week as supplies of holiday decorations became sparse. Holidaymakers normally buy Lunar New Year paper scrolls to hang on their front doors and red envelopes for cash that will be gifted to children in the family.

The Buddha Exquisite Corp. paper goods shop has turned to airmail to import most of its made-in-China 2022 supplies because normal marine shipping takes “a lot longer than usual,” store operator Rebecca Cheung said, adding that prices on such goods have risen.

COVID-19 restrictions and rising consumer demand have snarled marine shipping in much of the world.

Elsewhere in the United States, Chicago’s Chinatown is ready for an annual Lunar New Year parade and lion dances. The Seattle Chinatown International District has postponed its Lunar New Year celebration event until April 30.

Events in Los Angeles and Houston are expected as well, while Washington, D.C., canceled its 2022 program.

Michelle Quinn, Matt Dibble and Mike O'Sullivan contributed to this report.