This story is supported by the Pulitzer Center.
Inside the Phoenix Restaurant on Archer Avenue, manager Raymond Lei stares out over the quiet, sparsely filled dining room.
The fine-dining restaurant, with its glowing chandeliers and tall fabric-covered chairs, features dim sum. In the past, it bustled with lunch-time crowds. That was before COVID-19.
“Full house,” Lei recalled on a recent Thursday during lunch. “Not like this.”
Business in Chinatown, whose renowned restaurant scene attracts tourists and Chicago natives alike, ground to a near halt because of the coronavirus.
As many of the neighborhood’s businesses turned to take-out to protect staff and patrons alike, the community waited for the vaccines to arrive.
But when vaccines became available, the Chicago Department of Public Health prioritized communities hardest hit by the virus.
That did not include Chinatown.
With worries that the neighborhood would be left behind in the race toward immunity, community leaders forged a plan. They would open vaccination sites themselves.
“Chinatown has fallen through the cracks”
Chicago public health officials use a variety of metrics to determine how vulnerable each community in the city is to COVID-19, and that helps guide them on where to send coveted vaccines. They take into account how many people have gotten sick or died from the coronavirus, how many senior citizens live there and how many people can’t work from home.
From the city’s metrics, Chinatown isn’t as vulnerable as other parts of Chicago. The broader Armour Square community, which includes Chinatown, is considered “low” on the city’s so-called COVID-19 Community Vulnerability Index.
Black and Latino Chicagoans have been disproportionately affected by the virus. West Englewood, New City, Gage Park and North Lawndale are among two dozen communities labeled “high” on the vulnerability index. The Chicago Department of Public Health has concentrated vaccination efforts in several of these communities.
The entire 60616 ZIP code, which includes Chinatown, received just over 4,000 doses during the first three months of the vaccine rollout ending in mid-March, according to a WBEZ analysis of vaccine distribution data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. That’s compared to at least 79,000 doses in 60611, where tony Streeterville is located and home to prominent Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and at least 37,000 in Gage Park on the Southwest Side. Where doses are shipped isn’t necessarily where people get their shots.
Many people in Chinatown have been frustrated by the lack of vaccine access in their community. They say to see how vulnerable their neighborhood is, look beyond the metrics.
“Chinatown has fallen through the cracks,” said Illinois Rep. Theresa Mah, who represents the area.
The Chicago Department of Public Health did not provide comment for this story.
Mah describes the neighborhood as a health care desert, with fewer places to get medical care than in other parts of the city. Mercy Hospital in Bronzeville has been the go-to for many Chinatown residents over the years, and that hospital is on life support as it goes between owners.
Many Chinatown residents, particularly the elderly, face language and technology barriers in getting access to the vaccine.
“A lot of people just don’t have the English skills to navigate, and some people don’t have the technology skills to figure things out,” said David Wu, executive director of the Pui Tak Center, a staple in the heart of Chinatown.
Mah adds that many Chinatown residents have low literacy even in Chinese.
There’s also a trust issue. For many Chinatown residents who speak only Chinese, their neighborhood is their world. This is their safe space. It’s where they’re most comfortable, several community leaders said. They stressed that many Chinese-speaking elderly residents wouldn’t consider leaving the area to get vaccinated in a parking lot just outside the United Center sports arena, where there’s a large vaccination site.
“People are really going to struggle with getting vaccinated, and we found that to be really true,” Wu said. “Our biggest concern was seniors who live by themselves.”
So without a steady supply of vaccines, community leaders said they had to step up to open vaccination sites for residents closer to home.
A secret vaccine wait list
The Pui Tak Center is located in a striking building inspired by historical Chinese architecture along Wentworth Avenue. Pui Tak is a welcoming center for new immigrants, where before the pandemic some 500 to 600 people would come through the doors every day to learn English or send their children for after-school programs.
Now Wu runs large vaccination clinics there with vaccines from Prism Health Lab. There’s somewhat of a secret waiting list to get a shot. People only can get on the list if they can read Chinese, with the idea that younger, English-speaking members of the community could sign up elsewhere. The list is pretty long.
During a recent vaccination clinic, Wu’s assistant Karen Lee was armed with a tablet and a separate packet of paper to track the number of people vaccinated and doses administered that day.
“We have been calling over 2,000 people already,” Lee said next to a table where people checked in to receive a vaccination. “Some say they already take the vaccine somewhere. Then we say OK. That’s fine. And then we continue to call other people. It’s a lot of fun because we are helping, and also to bless the community.”
It’s painstaking work, too, that involves calling people on the waitlist sometimes late at night to confirm their appointments in the days ahead.
Because there isn’t a steady supply of vaccines to Pui Tak, the appointments happen whenever doses are available. Mah said she “begged” the city for vaccines.
“They’re going to insist on their way of addressing equity, but it completely overlooks our needs,” Mah said. “How you address equity differs from community to community.”
So far at least 1,600 people have been fully vaccinated at the Pui Tak Center. It’s a fraction of the neighborhood, but a start, community leaders say. In the 60616 ZIP code that includes Chinatown, just under 30% of the population has been fully vaccinated, city data show.
At the recent vaccination clinic, dozens of people waited in line to check in or sat in chairs with social distance in mind after receiving their shots. There was a local restaurant cook who had been concerned about customers coming in and out to pick up their meals. A teacher who was eager to get back to the classroom with her students.
Tiecheng Wang and Guimei Liu, a married couple who are both 71, said they hoped the vaccine would make it safer for them to fly home to China. They arrived in Chicago about a year ago to visit their daughter.
“Because of the pandemic, they stay here until now,” Karen Lee translated.
Other organizations in Chinatown also worked to get vaccines for residents. The Chinese American Service League, a social service agency that serves Chinatown, has worked with two health care providers. So far, more than 1,000 have been fully vaccinated, said CASL’s chief operating officer Jered Pruitt.
Optimistic about the months ahead
Like the rest of Chicago, Chinatown is showing signs of life. More people are milling up and down the streets. Of the chamber’s 52 restaurant members, only five haven’t reopened, Chinatown Chamber of Commerce President Patrick McShane said. Many survived on loans from the federal government. They’re still not operating at full capacity, per COVID-19 restrictions.
Kai Liang, a co-owner of MCCB — Modern Chinese Cook Book — in Chinatown Square, is preparing to reopen indoor dining on May 1 after many of his employees have had a chance to be vaccinated. It’s a place that, before the pandemic, was packed on weekend nights, where customers’ names and messages written in colored pen remain on walls that resemble a chalkboard.
Now Liang spends his days taking care of his young children who he doesn’t want back in day care yet. And he drops off groceries at the restaurant one to two times a week.
He’s optimistic for the months ahead.
“When we open the dining room the people will be waiting,” he said from the empty second floor of the restaurant. “If you come here in Chinatown right now on the weekend, there’s a line waiting … for most of the dining restaurants. People are crazy about it. They just want to come out and eat.”
Kristen Schorsch covers public health on WBEZ’s government and politics desk. Follow her @kschorsch.