San Francisco’s Chinatown opens for cautious Lunar New Year revelry despite Omicron

George Chen’s upscale China Live restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown has lost 90% of its Lunar New Year reservations made by corporate parties and large families fearful of the spread of COVID-19 as the omicron variant is unleashed across the United States. Three of its 100 employees have contracted the disease since the start of the omicron surge.

But its three-story restaurant isn’t turning away restaurant patrons like it did a year ago. No state or local government has ordered any closures. Small parties can still partake in private, informal dining, and Chen hopes to see more of these gatherings ahead of the annual big holiday for the global Chinese people, which falls on Feb. 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 sit outside, forget inside,” Chen told VOA on Tuesday. “This year is tough. … We’ll keep our fingers crossed and hope people feel more comfortable, get vaccinated and go out and have fun.

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

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

Countless people have decided on their own to stay home, auguring small crowds, but San Francisco’s Chinese New Year festival and parade is set to roll floats and feature lion dances through densely packed hilly streets lined with Chinese shops scalloped in red. The city’s annual Chinese New Year street fairs also take place.

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

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

Residents told VOA they were tired of staying indoors.

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 big extended family gatherings, weeks of fireworks and the equivalent of a formal spring cleaning for every household.

“The last two years (the celebrations) have come to a standstill, so this year there might be a few more, and if I have time, I’ll show up,” Lin said. At risk of catching COVID-19, he said, “I’ve become numb to it over the past two years.”

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

Sherwin Won, 69, a retired academic clinical laboratory scientist, plans to skip the traditional big family gathering 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, events and open spaces in San Francisco’s Chinatown are generally expected to draw thin crowds as people decide to stay home and avoid the risk of contagion. Chen estimates that 50% of stores in the district 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 scarce. Holidaymakers normally buy rolls of Lunar New Year paper to hang on their front doors and red envelopes for cash to be given to the children of the family.

The paper goods store of Buddha Exquisite Corp. has turned to airmail to import most of its China-made supplies in 2022, as normal shipping takes “much longer than usual”, store manager Rebecca Cheung said, adding that prices for these products have risen.

COVID-19 restrictions and growing consumer demand have hampered shipping in much of the world.

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

Events in Los Angeles and Houston are also expected, while Washington, DC has canceled its 2022 schedule.

Michelle Quinn, Matt Dibble, Michael O’Sullivan contributed to this report.