Although no cases of the virus have been reported in Miami, the local Chinese Cultural Foundation has preemptively canceled a Chinese New Year festival planned for February 16.
On its website, the organization said the move was in solidarity with the people of China.
"In order to stand with our global family throughout Asia — especially China, we regret to announce that the 2020 Chinese New Year Festival has been canceled," reads a message on the site. "We will be back in 2021 to celebrate the Year of the Ox."
But in a Facebook post Wednesday, festival organizers gave a slightly different explanation, posting a "Cancellation Notice" attributing the decision "to the worldwide concerns regarding 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) and our concern for the welfare and benefit of all our visitors, vendors, exhibitors, and sponsors...."
Festival chair Peter Liu tells New Times the decision to cancel the event was a difficult one. He says the organizers had no qualms about the virus but had heard through the grapevine that some past attendees were planning to skip this year's celebration.
"We're not afraid of corona — to heck with it," he says. "The problem is if attendance falls off because it's a Chinese New Year festival, I have placed all our vendors at a financial risk."
In hindsight, Liu says, he wished the festival's cancellation announcement had made that clearer.
"The entire organizing committee is volunteer," he says. "We do not hire a marketing company. We do our marketing on the kitchen table after work because everybody has their day jobs."
The vagueness of the Facebook post sparked debate in the comments thread, where some users expressed concern that the messaging would perpetuate racism surrounding the virus.
"An Asian woman was just beaten up today for wearing a mask on the NYC subway system," Miami resident Erin Tam wrote. "Canceling an annual event on baseless claims about public safety. Reckless."
Tam, who is of Chinese descent, tells New Times she has twice attended the festival in recent years and had planned to go this year as well. She says the Chinese Cultural Foundation's announcement took her by surprise and rubbed her the wrong way.
"Rightfully so, people are afraid of coronavirus, and I understand that, but to single out just 'Chinese anything' is just really dumb, for lack of better words," she says.
Tam's family owns a business that sources exotic fruit from South Florida and sells it wholesale in New York City's Chinatown. Since coronavirus became an international story a few weeks ago, she says, employees in New York have noticed "an increased amount of racism for no reason."
"The traffic there has decreased a lot," Tam says. "People are shouting, 'Go back to China.'"
Local businesses, too, have been affected. Olivia Wong, a Chinese-American Miami native, owns Fullei Fresh, an indoor hydroponic farm that grows sprouts for sale in grocery stores and restaurants. Wong says bean sprouts, which are commonly used in Chinese dishes, make up a huge portion of the company's business. Yet in the past two weeks, the demand for bean sprouts has plummeted, causing a dip in sales.
"I think people are afraid to associate with anything Chinese," she says.
Wong says she has heard similar stories from other Asian businesses in the Miami area. "It's really sad to see how it's affected so many industries," she says. "Everything eventually will pass over — it's just how long, we don't know."
Both Tam and Wong point out that Americans are far likelier to die from flu-related causes than from coronavirus. And they say Miamians should be careful not to spread misinformation or allow cable news to work them into a frenzy.
"People should do their homework. They shouldn't let all the hysteria in the media drive them one way or another," Wong says. "It's really unfortunate that they're tying an illness to a nationality, because I think it's just making things worse."
Before the Chinese New Year rolls around next year, Liu says he hopes the festival can find new corporate sponsors that can help contribute to its financial success.
Update, 5 p.m.: This story has been updated to include comments from festival chair Peter Liu.