Coronavirus Fears Won't Stop SF Lunar New Year Festivities

1 min
2020 is the Year of the Rat. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

In a cavernous warehouse on San Francisco’s waterfront, Stephanie Mufson and her small team of builders and decorators are putting the final touches on an array of spectacularly gaudy floats. They’re for the city’s Chinese New Year Parade this weekend — 2020 is the Year of the Rat.

"We have rats everywhere!" Mufson said, pointing out a pair of massive gold rats looking very pleased with themselves as they teeter on a pile of gleaming treasure.

Gold rats await the Chinese New Year Parade at Pier 54. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

The cavernous space is a psychedelic jumble of outsize critters. Gold ones ... red and white glittery ones ... and cute little gray ones holding watering cans.

"So, yeah," Mufson said. "A lot of different ways of interpreting the rat."

Some U.S. cities have canceled their Chinese New Year celebrations this year, owing to safety concerns with the spread of the new coronavirus beyond China. But in San Francisco, host to one of the oldest and largest Lunar New Year festivals and parades in the country, things are going ahead as planned.

Donna Ng has been attending the event for more than 30 years. She said she’s not about to stay home because of the coronavirus.

"I don't think it's going to affect the parade," Ng said. "We're talking thousands and thousands and thousands of people and only a handful are sick."

Longtime parade attendee Donna Ng hopes people won't stay home from the celebrations out of fear of getting sick. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

Fears about the spread of the coronavirus have caused the cancellation of celebrations this year in cities of all sizes, like New York, Denver and Elk Grove near Sacramento.

"I know there's a lot of concern right now," said San Francisco event organizer William Gee. "And I think there's a lot of confusion, maybe even some misinformation, depending on where you get it from."

San Francisco officials are trying to allay concerns about the spread of the virus ahead of the weekend's festivities. Norman Yee, president of the city's Board of Supervisors, fears the virus is an opportunity for some people to justify racist attitudes against the Chinese-American community.

“I urge all people that come year after year to continue to come to this parade on Saturday and have the fun that they always have, and that we continue supporting our community at large but in particular our API and Chinese American businesses," Yee said.

Gee said his team has been working through community concerns s, while at the same time maintaining a sense of perspective.

"Health officials still consider the San Francisco Bay Area to be at very, very low risk," Gee said. "There are some health officials that actually say there's a higher risk of contracting the flu rather than the coronavirus."

Gee said organizers aren't taking any special precautions for the event this weekend.

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"We’ll have wash bins where people can wash their hands," he said. "There may be some antibacterial or disinfectant soap as well that people can use. But this is kind of standard fare that we've been offering year after year."

The city’s Department of Public Health is currently not recommending the cancellation of public events and is advising attendees to take the usual wintertime precautions: Wash hands, get a flu shot and cover coughs and sneezes.

"If people want to come out for the parade, they should feel free to do so," said Susan Philip, director of the disease prevention and control branch at San Francisco Department of Public Health.

Longtime parade attendee Ng said she hopes people won’t stay away from this weekend’s festivities because they’re scared of getting sick, and suggests wearing a mask if that makes you feel more comfortable.

"If people want to wear masks, that's up to them," Ng said. "But I'm not planning on it."

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KQED's Marco Siler-Gonzales contributed to this report.