A single positive test and a precautionary disinfection triggered a social-media storm that threatens a long-standing retailer.

chinatown store

Chen Zhang

Business has dropped dramatically at Po Wing Hong since a single employee tested positive for COVID-19 in January.

This story originally appeared in World Journal. It was translated by Rong Xiaoqing.

Po Wing Hong food market, a time-honored store selling herbs and Cantonese soup ingredients in Chinatown, was caught by a COVID-19 rumor on social media recently.

Messages have been spreading that the store was shut down by authorities after an outbreak among its employees. Patrick Ng and Sophia Ng Tsao, the father and daughter duo who run the shop, told the World Journal on Jan. 25 that there was one employee who tested positive for the virus, but no one else has been found infected in the all-store testing afterwards.

They said the photos circulating online, in which people wearing hazmat appeared in the store, were taken during a paid disinfection. They call for customers to not be misled by a rumor.

Tsao said the store has been requiring COVID tests for its more than 50 employees every week since last November.

“It is a mandate,” said Tsao. “Those who refuse are not allowed to come to work.” She said an employee tested positive on Jan. 19 and was asked to quarantine at home even though the employee was asymptomatic. The store tested the rest of its employees again on Jan. 20, and the results all came back negative the next day.

Tsao said in order to assure employees and customers, the store hired a professional disinfection team on Jan. 22 to thoroughly clean the premises. The photos of hazmat-suit-clad people in the store were taken during the cleaning.

A receipt that Ng, the father, presented to this reporter showed that the disinfection took five hours and cost $4,186. “This was not required,” said Ng. “We did so only to guarantee a safe environment to our employees and to assure our customers that the products here are safe. But it was the additional preventive measures that made us a target of the rumor.” 

Tsao, who sobbed during the interview, said she was born in the U.S. but she is fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin. “I can understand the messages on [Chinese language] social media, and my friends also sent me some screenshots,” said Tsao. “It was so unfair that the brand name my parents had been building up for more than 40 years was smeared so unreasonably.”

Tsao said employees were also affected by the rumor when phone calls flooded the landline at the store and their cellphones (although many calls were from caring people or longtime customers making sure they were okay.) And the business has dropped dramatically.

“Po Wing Hong has survived 9/11 and a fire. But we had never expected to have a hard time like this during COVID-19,“ said Tsao. “It’s hard to believe the speed [at which] a rumor is spreading on social media.”

Po Wing Hong posted a statement on its Facebook page on Jan. 24 to debunk the rumor. When asked whether one positive case is enough to scare some customers who have already been walking the tightrope since the beginning of the pandemic, Tsao said that is the truth behind the rumor.

She said employees of Po Wing Hong, part of what is an essential industry listed by the state, have to expose themselves to risks everyday. “We did what we should do. And we are strong enough to fight the rumormongers,” Tsao said.