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SGV Was Weeks Ahead of LA on Coronavirus; Here’s What Life Is Like Right Now

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Restaurants in San Gabriel Valley are forced to adapt during the coronavirus pandemic

Woman wears a face mask in Monterey Park, California on March 10
Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

Take a drive through the San Gabriel Valley, and it will look significantly different from many other cities in the U.S. under stay-at-home orders right now: Droves of people are out and about, going to the market, getting gas, stocking up on to-go orders — but nearly everyone is wearing face masks and latex gloves.

The SGV is masked up and has been for weeks. In the month leading up to LA Mayor Eric Garcetti’s “Safer at Home” order, which was issued on March 15, Southern California’s most populated Asian-American community was already quietly preparing for the worst.

While cities around the country neglected to take the threat from the novel coronavirus seriously until it became a pandemic, many in the SGV are immigrants who can recall memories of the SARS/H1N1 outbreak and knew what was happening from news and social media networks, so they began wearing face masks, gloves, and stocking up on wipes and sanitizer in bulk.

The results of that preparation speak for themselves: Even as residents move somewhat freely through the area, according to the latest data from the LA County Department of Public Health, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in San Gabriel Valley cities have been significantly fewer than other municipalities such as Beverly Hills or Brentwood. For example, Alhambra and San Gabriel combined for 17 cases while Beverly Hills and Brentwood have a total of 62 as of March 30.

Steph Lu, who was visiting family from Canada for the Lunar New Year in January, spent her week-long vacation going to every drug store she could, searching for hand sanitizer, sterilizing hand wipes, and face masks. Hand sanitizer and face masks have been completely sold out at Target, Walgreens, Walmart, CVS, and all other major retailers in the SGV since late January; San Fernando Valley and West LA locations were almost fully stocked until mid-February.

Although the coronavirus has caused a number of San Gabriel Valley restaurants to shutter or temporarily halt services, many dine-in only restaurants have instead chosen to do a 180-degree turn in efforts to stay afloat and keep employees paid, shifting to a combination of takeout and grocery sales, or creating a special menu of dishes that would not typically be available for takeout or delivery. Business owners are trying to weather the storm and adapt quickly, or be left behind.

Hot pot takeout from Uniboil in various takeout containers
Hot pot takeout from Uniboil
Kristie Hang

Alex Siu, a freelance digital producer from San Marino, has been observing what’s been happening to SGV’s usually bustling restaurant scene. Due to stay-at-home orders and xenophobia occurring in other areas, Siu has found himself sticking close to home and ordering take-out to support his favorite mom-and-pop restaurants for the time being. “Big chain stores will be there tomorrow, but the local small businesses may not.”

Uniboil, a hot pot restaurant in Monterey Park that previously experienced a 75 percent drop in business due to COVID-19 concerns, has since reopened to offer customers hygienically packaged “cook at home” hot pot. The new takeout option comes with a mini stove pot, two 24 ounce drinks (passionfruit green tea or milk tea), a pound of meat, soup base, dipping sauces, and platefuls of veggies. They’ve even added a vegetarian option. Orders over $50 include two complimentary face masks.

Henry Hsu, the son of the owners of Taipei Bistro, and its head manager, has modernized his family’s restaurant to keep them in business, creating an online presence and signing up with delivery services like Ubereats, Doordash, Postmates, and GrubHub. “We have to do all this to offset the huge rise in food costs and the limited availability of inventory everywhere,” Hsu said. “Our business is able to stay afloat because of our loyal customers so we’re lucky.”

Deserted Atlantic Times Square in Monterey Park
Deserted Atlantic Times Square in Monterey Park on March 30, 2020, where most of the restaurants have closed.
Kristie Hang

Hsu has implemented new sanitation rules for the restaurant: Customers are not allowed into the restaurant at all, and all pickups and money exchanges are done from 20 feet apart via a bench. The food and money is placed on a bench before the staff steps away for retrieval. The entire staff wears masks and gloves, and all surfaces, cooking utensils, and other restaurant instruments are sanitized multiple times a day. All cash must be sanitized upon receipt.

Go Cakes, a custom cakes company in San Marino, lost 100 percent of its wedding and event catering business since March. Although they did think of closing the store temporarily, they ended up switching to dessert delivery and pick up to provide something sweet in the community and hopefully stay in business. Owner Stephanie Fong has created a deliverable new series of cream puff series, which come in a box of six (with flavors like cereal milk and matcha). As with San Gabriel Valley custom, all contact is handled with gloves and face masks on and orders are placed on a table six feet apart.

San Gabriel Valley was hit first among LA communities due to coronavirus concerns, with many restaurants closing temporarily or seeing severely decreased sales in March. Some restaurants have adapted to the new reality with hygienic packaging and social distance protocols to encourage locals to continue getting takeout or delivery food. Despite the struggles, SGV restaurants will have to cope until life can return to normal, though with “safer at home” measures likely to extend to May 1 or beyond, it’s going to be a difficult time for restaurant owners and workers who rely on the business.