Restaurants in Chinatown have been hit hard by the loss of tourism and decreased business caused by the coronavirus pandemic. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Struggling Chinatown restaurants get help moving business outdoors

A total of $25,000 will be distributed to assist with costs of Shared Spaces program

San Francisco’s Chinatown, with its bustling, food-market lined streets and eateries tucked away in alleys, has been eerily quiet since news of the coronavirus first reached The City.

Restaurants have been some of hardest hit by the flight of tourists and business closures.

Leaders in the community say of the more than 200 food establishments, only around one-third might survive through the end of the year. Many are reporting revenue loss around 70 percent.

The San Francisco Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Chinatown Community Development Center announced a new initiative Tuesday that will provide financial relief to struggling restaurants, many of which are mom-and-pop and immigrant-owned, and encourage them to participate in The City’s outdoor dining program.

The Chinatown Outdoor Dining Support Project will distribute a total of $25,000 to restaurateurs looking to participate in Shared Spaces, a city program that allows businesses to transform parking, street or sidewalk space into open-air customer areas.

Harlan Wong with the Chinese Chamber of Commerce said an assistance program Tuesday is intended to be “the lifeline needed for restaurants to serve Chinatown now and beyond.” (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

“Restaurants are the heartbeat of Chinatown,” Harlan Wong, vice president of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, said while announcing the program Tuesday. “We hope this is the lifeline needed for restaurants to serve Chinatown now and beyond.”

Owners can apply for a one-time grant of up to $500 to purchase barricades to protect customers from passing traffic and mitigate the cost of other technical elements needed to create a safe, enjoyable space.

Although the Shared Spaces permit is fee-free, Chinatown businesses have said it costs them roughly $1,000 to create the spaces to accommodate customers, including the purchase of barricades, tables and heaters, according to Donald Luu of the Chinatown Community Development Center.

Donald Luu with the Chinatown Community Development Center said many restaurants are spending around $1,000 to set up outdoor dining areas. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Applications are first-come, first-served, and the deadline to apply is Aug. 14. All grantees must adhere to the most recent public health protocols such as mask-wearing, sanitation and social distance.

No public funding is being used for these grants. But the two organizations have worked closely with city officials, including District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin, to lower barriers to entry for many restaurant owners and help them effectively apply for the Shared Spaces permit.

Many struggle to navigate paperwork and are unfamiliar with government processes. Others are older, and some can’t afford to pay labor with no guarantee there will be customers.

Steven Lee, a co-owner of Sam Wo Restaurant, said many restaurants owners are wary of applying for the Shared Spaces program because of the cost, language barriers and difficulties in dealing with bureacracy. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Steven Lee, a co-owner of Chinatown institution Sam Wo, said many of his peers have been hesitant to apply for the Shared Spaces program because of these hurdles.

“You can only survive on takeout for so long. People are adapting, and that’s what we’re trying to push for. You’ve got to think outside the box, and you have to ask for help,” he said of the need to encourage local establishments to take advantage of the grant and permit assistance.

Not every restaurant qualifies for the Shared Spaces permit. Sam Wo, for example, sits on Clay Street, whose slope has rendered it ineligible for now. Plenty of other restaurants would be viable candidates for the program, but the application process has been inaccessible to many owners, Lee said.

Chamber leaders say Chinatown’s plight has been exacerbated by xenophobia that kept people out before shelter-in-place began, and has persisted to give individuals living in other parts of San Francisco pause before returning to the neighborhood.

Rosa Chen from Chinatown Community Development Center said the xenophobic response coupled with the pandemic led to the worst decline in business the neighborhood has ever seen.

“We really hope to see more visitors come into Chinatown because now they have a spot to sit down,” she said of the two organizations’ hopes for the program’s impact.

Interested restaurant owners can pick up the application at the Chinese Chamber of Commerce on 730 Sacramento St.

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