Updated February 06, 2020 18:49:21

At his Chinese restaurant serving hot dumplings and noodle soups in Surfers Paradise on the Gold Coast, Charlie Men is still scratching his head over where his regular customers have gone.

Key points:

  • There is no evidence so far of human-to-human transmission in Australia
  • The possibility of the virus spread during the incubation period is still being debated
  • There is no need to wear masks on the street if you’re healthy, experts say

“Normally I have 40 people eating during the peak hours, but yesterday I only had four or five customers,” he told the ABC.

Mr Men said he had seen a dramatic drop in the number of customers since the coronavirus outbreak started in China last month and his business was down by 80 per cent.

“My staff called in sick for weeks over concerns [they might catch] coronavirus. I’m devastated,” he said.

“Now, I’m all by myself — I’m the owner, manager, cook and waiter.”

Mr Men said the Gold Coast Chinese restaurant community had taken a battering with a 50 per cent drop in business on average.

“My business relies on locals. Can you imagine those who are relying on Chinese tourist groups? Even worse,” Mr Men said, referring to Australia’s recent move to close its borders to Chinese visitors.

“A regular customer told me indirectly he was worried about eating at a Chinese restaurant after having seen people wearing masks in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.

“I was waiting to make money this Chinese New Year, now it’s all over.”

Mr Men’s experience is a familiar story across Australia, with the coronavirus fear factor taking its toll on Chinese restaurants in the Sydney suburbs of Eastwood, Chatswood and Burwood as well as Glen Waverley, Doncaster and Box Hill in Melbourne.

Bo Zhang, a Glen Waverley hot pot restaurant owner, was notified by the Victorian Health Department that a man infected with coronavirus visited his restaurant on Australia Day.

Authorities said the man had travelled to Wuhan City in Hubei province and first started showing symptoms more than two days after returning to Australia.

“I was worried about my staff and customers catching the virus, so I shut the restaurant. So far we are all OK,” he told the ABC.

“But I have been suffering a lot of financial pressure lately, such as mortgage, rent and wages.”

Mr Zhang has been self-isolating at home for nearly two weeks and he hopes to reopen the restaurant once the incubation period is over.

“I have received a lot of support and care from my friends, I really appreciate that,” he said.

Meanwhile, a Box Hill restaurant owner, who wanted to remain anonymous, said she made a loss of about $4,000 last week after paying rent for her shop, electricity and her employees among other running costs.

“It’s been very quiet lately. Because of the coronavirus outbreak, people are scared to eat in a restaurant,” she said.

“My business is down by about 40 per cent.”

So why is there so much concern over visiting those suburbs? Is it an overreaction, and is it still safe to dine at your favourite Chinese restaurant?

Can you catch the virus from a Chinese restaurant?

Several restaurants in Box Hill have temporarily closed shop or significantly reduced their opening hours to cut costs due to the significantly reduced patronage.

However, medical experts say catching the virus is highly unlikely because all 14 confirmed cases in Australia are currently in quarantine or have recovered and been released.

Sharon Lewin, director of the Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, said so far every patient who had been diagnosed had recently travelled to Wuhan — the epicentre of the virus — or have been in the Hubei province.

“[China is] at a stage where there is quite a significant amount of human-to-human transmissions, so the number [of cases] in China are far greater than anywhere else in the globe,” she told the ABC.

“We’ve had no human-to-human transmission yet here in Australia, so I would have absolutely no concerns about having a nice Chinese meal in Box Hill.”

Dominic Dwyer, a medical virologist at Westmead Hospital in Sydney, also pointed out that people usually sat next to their friends and family at restaurants and the only risk would be if they were sick.

“Generally, we say you’ve got to be within a metre or two, perhaps a bit more, of people with a disease to catch it,” said Dr Dwyer, who is also a professor at Sydney University.

“It doesn’t make sense to think that you could get infected in the restaurant when the infection, as far as we’re aware, isn’t in the community.”

But reports that the virus could spread during the 14-day incubation period — even if the individual wasn’t showing symptoms — have heightened anxiety in the Chinese community.

Dr Dwyer said while the incubation period could be up to two weeks, it was in fact usually around five or six days.

“They’re incubating the disease … they don’t have a cough, they don’t have a sneeze, they don’t have a runny nose, then they’re not transmitting the infection,” he said.

“There is some debate that perhaps you can spread the virus before you get symptoms, but there’s still some debate about that, that’s not what normally happens with most other respiratory infections.

“For the most part … you’re generally shedding the virus when you’re symptomatic.

“So if people don’t have symptoms, and are wandering around the community, the likelihood that they’re going to infect anybody else is extremely low, and the likelihood that they’re going to sit in a restaurant and be two tables away and infect you is just not going to happen.”

How does the virus transmit and how do you prevent it?

Dr Dwyer said coronavirus spreads through “respiratory droplets” produced when people cough or sneeze just like the flu and the common cold.

He said the droplets might travel a metre or more, and people could become infected if they inhaled it or touch a contaminated surface and then touched their mouth.

“There’s a lot of debate as to whether there are other methods of transmission, but so far, the evidence is really all about what we call the respiratory route,” he said.

Just like limiting the spread of the cold and flu, people are encouraged to sneeze or cough into a tissue or the crook of their arm and wash their hands regularly.

The Government has also asked people who returned from China to self-isolate themselves for 14 days, and to seek medical help — but call ahead — if they feel unwell.

While many people are seen wearing masks on the streets — leading to a mask shortage in some places — experts say it’s mostly unwarranted.

“First of all, standard surgical masks actually get wet very quickly just from your breath — breathing quickly in and out — and therefore are not effective,” Dr Lewin said.

“They also don’t block entry of a virus.”

Dr Dwyer said it would, however, make sense for people who are sick to wear a mask to reduce the spread of big droplets from spraying if they had a cough.

He said that while P2 or N95 masks were effective and worn by health professionals who were in close contact with patients in hospitals, they had to be fitted properly so that it was airtight.

“The other thing, too, is because they have to be quite tightly fitting to prevent air leakage, they’re not terribly comfortable to wear for long periods of time,” he said.

“So you couldn’t spend your whole day walking around wearing them.

“People do it because they’re anxious, but there’s no scientific merit in the ordinary person wearing a mask to be on the street.”

Are only restaurants impacted?

Despite the high level of precautions taken, including Australia closing its borders to visitors from China and advising Australians against travelling there, the Chinese community remains on high alert — steering clear of suburbs with a large Chinese population.

Local businesses that rely on patronage from Chinese customers like Vincent Liu’s Asian grocery store have also taken a hit.

“Rumour has it that someone who’s infected has been to some places like Box Hill which impacted on residents here, including shop owners and visitors. It’s unfortunate,” said Mr Liu, who is also the honorary chairman of the Melbourne Taiwanese Chamber of Commerce.

“Since the start of the Chinese New Year, commercial activities have halved and the situation continues to deteriorate throughout this week.

“Business in the Box Hill Central precinct is down by 70 to 90 per cent across various businesses.”

He added it was the first time he had seen this situation this bad in 30 years.

Mr Liu’s daughter, Tina Liu, who is a councillor for the City of Whitehorse’s Elgar Ward — which includes Box Hill — said traders and businesses in the area as well as the general community needed support.

“We’re also hearing some restaurants for example, they’ve decided to just close shop rather than operate because they’re making losses, so that is of great concern,” she said.

“With this particular issue, it’s not just a local government issue, obviously it involves the state as well as federal level of government, so I would be very keen to work closely with them in order to address some of these concerns.”

More on the coronavirus outbreak:

Topics: health, diseases-and-disorders, infectious-diseases-other, respiratory-diseases, government-and-politics, world-politics, disease-control, australia, vic, china, asia

First posted February 06, 2020 17:49:15