May 21, 2020; NBC News
New York City’s Chinatown neighborhoods are known for their local eateries, which often operate on cash. Cash operations can be a smart business move—no need to share income with third parties, like credit card companies or food delivery sites. But this is not so during COVID-19, when your options are online sales or no sales at all.
And so we see yet another instance of how COVID-19 makes the pre-existing US digital divide even more important. According to a Pew Research Center study, in the US nearly half of adults with household incomes below $30,000 don’t have a computer or broadband service, and 29 percent don’t own a smartphone.
We’ve seen this digital divide affect education—and the census. And, yes, those restaurants that were unable to shift to online platforms to deliver food and/or run GoFundMe-style fundraising campaigns suffered deeply, too. All told, an estimated 85 percent of Manhattan’s Chinatown restaurants have shuttered.
Enter Send Chinatown Love. Started by Square employee Justin McKibben and powered by volunteer engineers, web designers, and fundraisers, the nonprofit aims to bolster immigrant-run local restaurants, by building custom fundraising pages where patrons can donate or buy vouchers. The new offering is aimed at Asian American business owners in lower Manhattan, Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst, and Flushing in Queens.
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“None of us has been in this nonprofit space before,” McKibben says. “We all just love Chinatown and worry that it would disappear one day.”
The platform allows merchants to maintain their traditional cash-driven operations even as they benefit from online donations, which has helped with adoption. McKibben cites a general skepticism of Send Chinatown Love’s services, due in part to the newness of the technology being used to drive business, that had to be overcome. “I think now they see the value in having an online presence and how much it’s helped them.”
Ling Song, whose parents own an eatery that has benefited from the new site, senses this may be a gateway into a more tech-savvy future.
While this support is helping these local establishments, it highlights weaknesses in the economy and the associated stimulus efforts. One other likely consequence of these businesses’ lack of digital infrastructure was that their owners probably missed the chance to apply for the fast-moving, confusing Paycheck Protection Program, which was meant to support this exact type of enterprise. Relying on well-intentioned but random acts of kindness from individuals, as well as the nonprofit sector’s critical but often outsized role in plugging gaps, is not the reliable, sustained economic support these small businesses need to weather the current crisis.—Danielle Holly