Fueled by Fear and Rumors on Social Media, Face Masks are Selling Out

People in Flushing, Queens wearing masks | Photo by Caroline Chen

People in Flushing, Queens wearing masks. / Photo by Caroline Chen

By Caroline Chen and Yuntong Man

As the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a global public health crisis on Thursday, and the U.S. barred foreigners who visited China from entering the country Friday afternoon, rumors on social media about its spread stirred fear among the Chinese community in New York City, prompting a rush on facial masks.

On Friday, in a sign of just how  quickly rumors circulate,  reports of a confirmed case in Queens hit social media and news reports, only to be quickly debunked by city and state authorities.

The new virus has already killed 259 people and sickened nearly 12,000 worldwide, as of Jan 31.  In the United States, six cases have been confirmed. None are in New York State. Despite the small number of infections and the lack of them here, pharmacies in Flushing, Queens quickly ran out of masks as early as last week and were told by wholesale suppliers that there were no more masks in stock.  

Starside Drugs & Surgicals restocked with about 1,400 masks on Tuesday morning but sold out again by noon, according to staffers, even though it limited the number of purchases to one box, either 20 or 50 masks, per customer. Staff members said customers began hoarding masks last week and were coming in to ask about masks every 10 or 20 minutes.

The drastic increase in facial mask demand is driving up prices, say retailers, because suppliers are reporting to them that supplies are too low. Raymond Au, who works at a grocery store that also sells masks in Flushing, explained that they had to double the price of masks because it was more expensive than usual for them to purchase from suppliers. 

And this wasn’t only happening in Chinatown—there’s also a mask shortage in pharmacies in other neighborhoods in the city. Ge Chang, a graduate student at New York University, said she couldn’t find any near her home in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn this week either. “I also checked Walgreens and CVS online, nothing left,” she wrote in a message on WeChat, a giant Chinese social media network.

Janet Lin, a staff member at the newly opened Healthy Drugs & Medical supplies in Flushing, said in Mandarin that people were scared because of New York’s large population and the mobility of Chinese people. The pharmacy she works for sold around 350 surgical masks within two days last week, she said, and had to put up a notice on its door saying it had run out. 

A pharmacy in Flushing, Queens put up a notice saying no masks are available. / Photo by Caroline Chen

She also thinks that a lot of misinformation on WeChat has prompted people, mostly Chinese, to amass masks out of panic. WeChat users post their own content, message each other, and share articles. Content creators range from government press offices, media outlets to individuals, who have equal opportunities to publish and distribute information on WeChat. And its group chat function, which allows up to 500 people to message in a group, makes it easy to spread information fast but also makes it difficult to trace back to original sources.

Most Chinese people living in the U.S. use WeChat as their primary social media app, and obtain information including news there. Since the first confirmed U.S. novel coronavirus case, rumors about suspected cases in the New York area have spread among Chinese on WeChat.

A message on WeChat last Thursday, for example, caused panic among Chinese college students in New York City. The message claimed that a student at the School of Visual Arts was diagnosed with the 2019-nCoV virus and had visited Koreatown in Midtown Manhattan before being hospitalized. This message was shared on dozens of groups and reposted in Moments, a WeChat section where people create posts like they do on Facebook or Instagram. However, one day later, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office said in a statement that the only two confirmed cases in the U.S. at that time were in Washington State and Chicago.

Similar rumors, often credited to “a reliable friend,” about infections among Chinese students at Columbia University, North Shore University Hospital, and Albert Einstein College of Medicine, also spread on the social media platform. All three institutions denied the existence of such cases.

Yet, these rumors caused uneasiness among the Chinese student community. Some Chinese students started to avoid large gatherings because of the growing concerns—and some groups even called off public functions. Last Saturday, Columbia University Chinese Students and Scholars Association cancelled its annual Chinese New Year Gala, which normally hosts near 1,000 guests and 200 performers from the entire city. The gala normally costs more than $20,000 to produce.

“The main reason is that the news coverage of the outbreak at home and abroad made us worry about the health and safety hazard,” Zhipu Ye, senior vice president of Columbia University Chinese Students and Scholars Association, replied via a WeChat message in Chinese. According to Ye, most Chinese students, as well as the university, showed support for the decision. “People all think that under such a circumstance, it’s a right decision to cancel large events,” he said.

The association refunded those who bought tickets, and chose to videotape the performance and distribute it online for free. This inevitably put the student organization under financial pressure. But Ye was not discouraged. “We’ve been preparing for this for four months and devoted enthusiasm and energy,” he wrote. “Although we won’t be able to hold a live New Year Gala, we’re being positive about the situation.”

Dancers performing during the taping of the New Year Gala at Columbia University / Photo by Yuntong Man

Dancers performing during  the Columbia University Chinese New Year Gala taping. / Photo by Yuntong Man

Two days later, the Chinese consulate in New York also suggested the Chinese Students and Scholars Association at different universities cancel their large events because of the outbreak, according to Ye. Groups at multiple universities, including Harvard and Yale, followed Columbia’s decision days later. The consulate also asked Chinese students who had recently travelled to Hubei Province, the epicenter of the outbreak, to provide their personal information, including their universities, travel dates, and health status, through a Google form on Friday morning.

Considering there are no confirmed cases in New York State at this time, however, the Chinese-American Planning Council Brooklyn Services has decided to hold the annual a Lunar New Year celebration as scheduled on February 1. The group said it consulted with healthcare professionals and local elected officials before making its decision. However, the council has worked to educate community members and provide health tips, a spokesman said and will offer hand sanitizers during the celebration on Saturday as a “simple preventative measure,” according to Steve Mei, director of the organization.

“In this case, we are moving forward with our event as we think it is in everyone’s best interest to continue going about our daily lives, celebrate culture with our community members and provide updates,” Mei wrote in an email. 

Even though precautions are being taken by many in the community, some Chinese students are reporting that they have started to worry about racial profiling. Veronica Kang, a graduate student at New York University, started a self-quarantine after she returned from Beijing on January 25. She stayed at home on the Upper East Side and missed most of the classes in the first week of school, because she didn’t want to take the risk of infecting others. She eventually showed up for an “important” class on Monday, wearing a mask.  She sat far away from others.

N95 masks are sold at $5 each in a pharmacy in Flushing, Queens. / Photo by Caroline Chen

N95 masks are sold at $5 each in a pharmacy in Flushing, Queens. / Photo by Caroline Chen

Kang didn’t pay attention to other people’s reactions. “I was told by a classmate that it didn’t feel like a big deal at first, but after she saw me wearing a mask, she got scared,” Kang replied in Chinese.

“Wearing a mask is being responsible for yourself and others, but you can also become targeted,” she added.

Now that the coronavirus is spreading, Kang is very worried that her Asian face plus a mask will get her into more trouble. “I’m afraid of being attacked because of wearing a mask,” she wrote in Chinese.

A comics describing the discrimination against Chinese people amid the outbreak of the coronavirus. / Screenshot by Yuntong Man

A comics describing the discrimination against Chinese people amid the outbreak of the coronavirus. / Illustration by Siyu Cao. Screenshot by Yuntong Man

Her fears not unfounded. A comic about the fear of masks even went viral on Instagram. In the grey and white comic, a Chinese girl with a mask is standing in a subway coach, and others flee from her with scary facial expressions. Artist Siyu Cao from tinyeyecomics, an Instagram account focusing on cultural differences, was inspired by recent coronavirus-related racial discrimination.

In his research, Cao found that international health administrations, except for the Chinese one, do not recommend using masks unless one is already sick. However, in China, wearing a mask is recommended, and a habit that can trace back to the SARS outbreak and the air pollution in recent years. “Chinese people get more detailed and instant information about the outbreak through WeChat. And they have a stronger eagerness to be prepared,” Cao said.

Despite worries about racial profiling, Chinese living in New York still want to be responsible for others around them. Jingwenn Zhang, a Barnard College freshman, returned to New York from Wuhan on Jan 19th. She said Barnard Primary Care Health Service required her and other students who had traveled from Wuhan to complete physical exams before she could attend class. Her body temperature and blood oxygen were checked before returning to classes. She wore a mask voluntarily. “I don’t feel offended by the tests,” Zhang said. “The school is being responsible for all the students.”

Zhang isn’t the only one appreciating extensive and cautious public health measures. Jingru Li, a data scientist working in Manhattan, returned from Beijing and landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport Thursday afternoon. Customs and Border Protection officers asked if he had been to Wuhan and took his temperature with a non-contact thermometer. “I want the screening to be strict. There should’ve been a blood test,” Li said. “People in the incubation period don’t show fever symptoms.”

Although airlines including Delta, United, and American canceled flights to China beginning in February and through March or April, and the White House Friday declared the outbreak a public health emergency in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still considers the immediate health risk from the 2019-nCoV low for the general American public.