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Rumor: SARS Infects Restaurant Workers in Asian Neighborhoods

Netlore Archive: Variants of a widespread rumor claim the SARS epidemic threatens local communities across North America via infected workers at restaurants and groceries in Chinatowns and other Asian neighborhoods.

Description: Rumor / Email hoax
Circulating since: March 2003
Status: False

Example #1:
Internet posting dated April 1, 2003:

For those of you who eat in chinatown, please be advised for that SARS has hit that area. As of today I heard that the owner's son(s) & the entire staff of the resturant BO KY located on Bayard st. b/t Mott & Mulberry Sts. has been infected with the SARS. The owner was infected & has passed away recently due to what have seemed to be flu like symptoms. I think its best that you either stay away from that area or eat in.

Please pass this along for those who I might have missed.

Example #2:
Email contributed by P. Tang, April 8, 2003:

FYI... Please take caution!!!

The SARS disease has spread to our neighbor. Today 4-3-2003, the police has shut down Hawaii and San Gabriel Supermarket due to the employee somehow got hit by this virus. Also one of the chief at Capital restaurant in Alhambra also got this virus. The Sam Woo restaurant in the FOCUS plaza was close early today to avoid getting it.

Friends, please take care of yourself and your family. Avoid going to ASIAN areas!!! This is very serious about life and death and spreading them to the love one. Pay close attention to the Chinese newspaper and be alert about this deadly virus. Please pass this message to all of your friends so they can protect their love one too.


Analysis: "Fear of the SARS virus is becoming a more dangerous epidemic than the disease itself," declared the lede in an Agence France-Presse dispatch dated April 4, 2003. Though the story was filed in Hong Kong, where alarmist hoaxes, rumors and media sensationalism have nudged the populace to the edge of panic, wreaking social and economic havoc, the same appears to be happening on a smaller scale in Asian communities across North America.

Since late March, rumors (or malicious hoaxes, in some cases) like the above - reportedly circulating via email in cities from New York to Toronto to Sacramento and places in between - have warned people to stay away from Chinatowns and other predominantly Asian neighborhoods due to alleged outbreaks of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) among restaurant or grocery workers in those areas, often citing specific businesses by name. The entrepreneurs of these businesses say patronage has declined by as much as 70 percent, even though none - I repeat, NONE - of the alleged outbreaks investigated so far have proven real.

AP: No SARS cases in U.S. Chinatowns

As of this writing, no cases of SARS have been found in any Chinatown in the United States, according to the Associated Press.

The New York variant of the rumor, which appeared on April Fools Day and was almost certainly an intentional prank, had a particularly devastating effect on Vietnamese-born Chivy Ngo, owner of Bo Ky, the restaurant named in the email. The email claimed not only that Ngo's entire staff including his own son had contracted SARS, but that Ngo himself had already died of "flu-like symptoms." Very much alive, Ngo watched business dwindle and fear spread throughout Chinatown as the rumor spread far and wide in subsequent days. "It's absolutely untrue," a health department spokesman told the New York Times on April 3. "We checked it out, and there was nothing to support the story as it circulated."

'Hotbeds' of SARS?

A week later, San Gabriel, California, home to a large Asian-American population, suffered a similar bout of rumor fever. "Avoid going to ASIAN areas!" the email warned. It named a supermarket and two Chinese restaurants as hotbeds of SARS infection. The San Gabriel Police Department, which said it was receiving 50 calls a day about the allegations, immediately declared them false. According to the San Gabriel Valley Tribune there are currently only eight suspected cases of SARS in the entire county, none of which involve the companies named. Similar scenarios have played out in San Francisco, Las Vegas, Sacramento, Toronto, Boston and elsewhere.

There's good reason for public concern over SARS, which has spread rapidly in Asia (where it is thought to have originated) and for which there is, as yet, no known cure. But scientists and health organizations are taking the epidemic very seriously and working overtime to understand and contain the disease. There is little cause for panic, still less cause for creating panic by spreading baseless rumors.

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Sources and further reading:

SARS Fear Roils Chinatown Neighborhoods
Associated Press, 8 April 2003

Worries Add to the Confusion of SARS
Sacramento Bee, 9 April 2003

Chinatown Businesses Hurt by SARS Hoax
The Boston Channel, 3 April 2003

In Chinatown, an Outbreak of Fear
New York Times, 4 April 2003

SARS-Related Emails Cause Concern in San Gabriel
San Gabriel Valley Tribune, 9 April 2003

Now, SARS Hysteria Becomes an Epidemic
Agence France-Presse, 4 April 2003

Last updated: 04/11/03

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