In a Koreatown restaurant known for its beef bone broth soup, the lunchtime crowd Friday was half its normal size. The reason was a virulent rumor about a customer with coronavirus.
Han Bat Shul Lung Tang was one of five restaurants that lost business after being named in posts on a Korean messaging app that warned a Korean Air flight attendant with the virus had dined there during a layover in Los Angeles more than a week ago.
“It's fake news,” owner John Kim said, and he had proof. His restaurant was closed at the time because of a water leak, a fact confirmed by the Department of Public Health.
Local news from across Southern California
The rumor about the flight attendant was dispelled Friday morning by the Republic of Korea consulate in Los Angeles. In a statement posted in Korean on Facebook, the consulate general said the attendant who visited Los Angeles on Feb. 19-20 had gone to two businesses but neither was in Koreatown. Later in the day, public health officials said the flight attendant was not contagious while in the city.
The rumor and the impact on the restaurants was a prime example of how fears of the virus combined with the speed and reach of social media can quickly cripple the healthiest of businesses and focus suspicion on ethnic communities.
The virus, which began in China, has been spreading worldwide and has taken a big toll lately in South Korea. Lawmakers and advocates for immigrant communities have warned about xenophobia and discrimination aimed at Asian Americans.
State Assemblyman Kansen Chu, D-San Jose, said Chinese businesses, in particular, were experiencing large economic losses as a result of racism and fear.
A group representing Koreatown restaurants said business in general was down about 50% since the rumor spread on the Kakao Talk app on Monday.
One message circulating on the app provided details of the flights the attendant worked on and listed the restaurants that said she purportedly visited with the message: “Please share with everyone to avoid these ktown spots,” using an abbreviation for Koreatown.
“In the Korean-American community here, it went like wildfire,” Alex Won said Friday as he ate a bowl of beef brisket soup at Han Bat Shul Lung Tang. “It's sad.”
Won said he got the message from friends and family members, but never really believed it because it wasn't reported in the news. He stopped at the restaurant at the start of the week and found it closed because of a water leak. He was happy to return for a late lunch Friday and was surprised to find he was the only diner.
“I've never seen it this empty,” he said. “There's always people here.”
Owners of other restaurants named in the post said business died almost instantly.
At Honey Pig, a Korean barbecue restaurant with 25 tables, only six parties were seated during one bad day of business this week, owner Chin Kim said.
Customers had been calling to inquire if the rumors were true, and some asked more outlandish questions, Kim said. One woman who had dined at the restaurant recently called to ask if it was safe to attend her daughter's upcoming wedding, Kim said.
Owners were frustrated they couldn't get more information from public health officials. Korean news media reported Thursday that South Korea's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed a female flight attendant who tested positive for the virus had traveled to Los Angeles.
The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health said it was aware of reports about the flight attendant but had no confirmation from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention until late Friday. That's when it said she did not develop symptoms of the illness known as COVID-19 until after leaving LA, so she posed no risk while in the city.
With a rumor they couldn't confirm or deny, some restaurants took no chances. Video circulated on social media of a worker in a hazmat-type suit spraying down the floors at Hangari Kalguksu, a noodle soup house.
The sign outside Hanshin Pocha, a bar offering traditional Korean snack fare, boasts “never been closed since 1998." Nevertheless, the establishment shuttered Tuesday to sanitize the restaurant. Bottles of hand sanitizer were lined up on a counter next to bottled water.
“It’s a bad rumor, but people like bad rumors,” said Jay Choi, manager of Hanshin Pocha.
Choi and others talked about the need to find and punish the person who started the rumor. He said he was looking into hiring a lawyer to take legal action.
On the streets of Koreatown, some pedestrians wore surgical masks. But they were not the norm.
Zhang Bin, a college student from China, and his roommate have worn the masks for protection since the virus broke out.
“I think even if the stewardess didn't come to the restaurants, we still need to protect from the virus,” he said. “The speed and the spread of the disease is so fast.”
David Yim in Los Angeles and Jae Hong in Tokyo contributed to this report.