A number of Chinese restaurants in Malta have been hit by misplaced fears about the new coronavirus.
The decline in custom comes despite reassurances from the health authorities that the virus, now named Covid-19, cannot be transmitted through food, so Chinese food is safe in this regard.
“It’s Valentine’s night and only a third of our tables are booked. Last year we were fully booked,” Lina Che, the owner of the Grand China Restaurant in Marsascala, complained last Friday.
Of the 12 tables at her restaurant, only five had been booked on a night when couples traditionally celebrate February 14 with a dinner out.
She said news about the virus spreading in China and abroad had resulted in a slow and gradual drop in custom. The previous week, the decline had reached 50 per cent, she said.
The situation was taking its toll on her emotionally, she admitted, but she was hopeful that the crisis would not be as bad in about a month’s time.
Ms Che is also determined to regain the customers’ trust, emphasising that the virus has nothing to do with the food prepared in her restaurant.
“I want to show them around. I want to show them the kitchen, whatever people ask to see, whether it’s the certificates or the invoices. I want to show them that the food is coming from Malta. I want the chance to show we can be trusted.”
The president of the Chamber of Small and Medium Enterprises, Abigail Mamo, said the organisation had been in contact with Chinese restaurants and a number had suffered “a direct hit”.
“Overall, most have experienced decreased sales,” she said.
The Jade Garden Restaurant in St Julian’s has seen a drop of between 30 and 40 per cent, starting just days after the outbreak was announced, according to its owner George Spiteri.
I want to show them that the food is coming from Malta. I want the chance to show we can be trusted
Mr Spiteri has owned the restaurant for 24 years and remembers the SARS epidemic of 2002-3, which also originated in China. He said the effects on business of the new virus are far worse.
“People are afraid and social media is making the situation much worse,” he said.
“I still have customers coming into the restaurant and those tend to be better informed about how the virus spreads from person to person,” he added.
Mr Spiteri stressed that the fresh meat, fish, vegetables, noodles and other grains using in cooking all come from local suppliers or from European countries like France and The Netherlands. None of his products are imported directly from China.
The impact has not been as bad for the China Town restaurant and takeaway in Mrieħel. One of its managers, Jolene Bonello Teeling, said the company had experienced a slight drop in sales for about two weeks in January before returning to normal in February.
She said the company had received numerous calls from people asking questions about whether their food was safe, where they sourced their produce and about their employees. This prompted them to post reassurances on Facebook last week.
“People were asking us questions and wanted to be assured that nothing was wrong with the food we were using. We assured them that everything was OK. Most of our products come from local suppliers and there are no direct imports from China,” she said.
The manager of Jimmy’s Wok in Birkirkara said business had been quiet since the start of 2020 but this might not be linked directly to fears about the coronavirus. None of his customers had expressed worries about it, he added.
“The virus is a non-issue and it is not affecting people booking a table or ordering food from us.
“The focus should be on following hygiene rules correctly,” the manager said, adding that fears about the link were unfounded and it was important not to panic people.
The owner of the Chinese Canteen in Qormi, Mseng Wang, said he too was experiencing a slowdown but blamed it on the flu season rather than the coronavirus.
He questioned why people were worried given it was not contracted from food.
The manager of China House in St Julian’s, Melanie Xerri De Caro, echoed these comments, saying it came down to educating people that the virus did not spread through food but through human transmission.
“If the customers are well informed, they know where the food comes from. The issue is hygiene and that should be applied to all restaurants not just Chinese,” she said.
The Silk Road takeaway has not suffered any problems with its sales, according to its owner, who questioned why people were so quick to pinpoint Chinese restaurants and the food they prepare.
Malta’s Chinese restaurants are not the only ones suffering a slowdown, however, with reports of the same phenomenon emerging from several other countries and cities outside China.
The coronavirus broke out in a seafood market in Wuhan, China, at the end of last year and has so far infected around 47,000 people through human-to-human transmission. The majority of these cases have been reported in China.
Around 447 cases have been confirmed in 24 countries around the world. Over 1,300 people have died in China from Covid-19 while only one has died internationally so far.