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Asian American Businesses Eye Reopening Amid Pandemic-Related Racism Concerns

By Bob Sechler Austin American-Statesman

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As Bob Sechler reports, "some Asian American business owners have an additional worry as they contemplate getting back to work -- the possibility of becoming targets of misdirected anger over the ongoing pandemic."

Austin

Now that retail stores, restaurants and various other businesses statewide are allowed to reopen their doors, many are weighing if it's cost-effective to do so at greatly reduced capacities and while taking measures to ensure employees and customers are safe from the coronavirus.

But some Asian American business owners have an additional worry as they contemplate getting back to work -- the possibility of becoming targets of misdirected anger over the ongoing pandemic and the widespread economic damage it has caused locally and across the country.

"There could be incidents against their employees (and) there could be incidents in their places of business, basically," said Marina Ong Bhargava, chief executive of the Greater Austin Asian Chamber of Commerce.

The concerns have prompted the Asian chamber to schedule a free webinar on Tuesday, during which an Austin police official will help local business owners identify and respond to potentially racially motivated disturbances in their stores or restaurants, as well as report them.

Bhargava said the event is aimed at being proactive as the Austin economy slowly opens back up, because there haven't been any such incidents involving her members and their businesses yet.

But the apprehension isn't baseless as the U.S. and Chinese governments continue to spar over the origins and handling of the pandemic.

A Buddhist temple in North Austin was vandalized last week, while many local Asian Americans are able to reel off recent anecdotes in which they or people they know have been subject to racially tinged comments or rants related to the virus while out in public.

In addition, there have been reports of violent incidents elsewhere -- such as the case of a man who allegedly tried to kill an Asian family at a Midland supermarket in March because of the virus -- and federal law enforcement officials have warned of an uptick in hate crimes against Asian Americans nationally,

"Everybody is concerned," said Ronald Cheng, a longtime Austin entrepreneur who owns three Chinatown restaurants here.

Cheng opened his restaurants for dine-in service last Friday -- just hours after Gov. Greg Abbott's order went into effect allowing restaurants, retailers and some other businesses to reopen at 25% capacity -- but he said he's sympathetic to other local Asian American business owners who might be worried about doing so because of concerns about racism.

"I totally understand where they are coming from," he said, calling the Asian chamber's planned seminar a good idea to raise awareness about the issue, provide people with useful information and help alleviate apprehension.

Cheng said he didn't have such concerns himself when deciding whether to reopen because he has been in business several decades in Austin and knows many of his customers. Still, he noted that he recently was the target of a racially charged insult at a local post office, when a woman yelled at him that "you people" spread disease.

"Asian people are very worried" that such incidents are on the rise amid the pandemic, Cheng said.

Marita Etcubañez, director of strategic initiatives at Asian Americans Advancing Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, said they clearly are.

Among other evidence, she said her group has received about 130 reports of hate crimes and hate incidents against Asian Americans nationwide since about the beginning of March, compared to an estimated 250 in the previous three years combined. Those numbers only include reports to her organization, so the total submitted to police across the country since the pandemic began likely is significantly higher.

"There's definitely a lot of, 'You people caused this, you people brought this, take the virus back to China,'" Etcubañez said. "People are weaponizing the term corona and coronavirus" and using it against Asian Americans.

She said six of the 130 incidents her organization has received since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis -- all of which have been pandemic-related -- came from Texas, with two from Austin. One of the Austin reports involved an altercation with a neighbor, she said, while details of the other aren't public at the request of the person who submitted it.

Like Cheng, she said the Asian chamber is taking a prudent step by trying to be proactive as businesses begin to reopen.

"I think those concerns (of Asian American business owners) are very real, and I share them," Etcubañez said. "I wish it weren't the case, but it is good to be prepared and hope you don't need it."

Eric Yi, owner of Asia Market on Spicewood Springs Road, opted to close in mid-March out of virus-related safety concerns for his employees and customers even though, as a grocery store, his business was deemed essential and could have remained open. While he hasn't made plans to reopen yet, he said the climate for Asian American businesses might factor into his timing if there's a big rise in racially charged incidents as the pandemic continues.

"It's just going to depend on how serious (such incidents are), how often and how close to home," Yi said.

"I'm not surprised people are worried about it," he said. "I know people are talking about it, and I've thought about it." ___ Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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