People across the country are calling their public health departments, wondering if the Shen Yun Chinese dance troupe will bring the 2019 novel Coronavirus to town.
Spokespeople for the public health departments in Philadelphia and Reno tell The Daily Beast they have fielded calls fearful of upcoming Shen Yun performances. Utah and Salt Lake City health departments have also received such calls and at least one email, as the Beast previously reported.
The dance group poses no risk, officials have uniformly said, and the fears are unfounded. Shen Yun does not perform in China at all, as the troupe asserted in an official statement, and its base of operations is in New York City.
Still, with Shen Yun scheduled to perform in Reno this coming weekend—and in Salt Lake City and Philadelphia—the calls amounted to one of the most visceral expressions yet of nativist American fear over a deadly epidemic.
Jim Garrow, a spokesman for the Philadelphia department of public health, said his office received a call Thursday complaining about Shen Yun’s performance and asking about a rumor that members of the troupe had been infected. The dancers performing in Philadelphia had not, he said, as they’ve been in the U.S. longer than what is understood to be the virus’ incubation period and had developed no apparent symptoms.
The Shen Yun scare may just be vapors, but Garrow saw them as symptomatic of a larger concern: racist fears over coronavirus.
“These complaints are a shame,” he told The Daily Beast. “As far as the health department is concerned, Shen Yun isn’t a threat at all. But we are worried about this feeling among some people that if someone is of Asian descent or has traveled anywhere in Asia, that they’re a threat and a vector of the disease."
The hysteria has pernicious aftershocks. Shops in Philadelphia’s Chinatown have seen as much as a 50 percent decrease in business since panic over the coronavirus began, Garrow said, noting that his department has put out a consistent stream of materials to try to debunk the fear.
“It’s done real damage to the Chinese community,” he added. “We’ve gotten similar complaints and questions about Asian owned businesses and employees. There’s no reason to associate the disease with someone who’s Chinese. It’s just a disease. It doesn’t care what you look like or where you’re from.”
The racist angst isn’t unique to Philadelphia. Health officials in Reno and Salt Lake City said they had not received calls about coronavirus related to any other traveling act—besides Shen Yun.
The nativist backlash hasn't been universal. The Daily Beast contacted local and state health departments administering to cities where Shen Yun is slated to perform in upcoming weeks—Fairfax, Philadelphia, Norfolk, Omaha, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Reno, and St. Louis. Most of the agencies said they had not received calls about the performance group.
The Douglas County public health department in Nebraska is part of the team managing at least a dozen diagnosed coronavirus patients, all former passengers of the Diamond Princess cruise ship. The agency anticipated concerns over Shen Yun related to coronavirus: Its epidemiologists investigated the possibility of the group transmitting the virus, discussed it with Nebraska state health officials, and found no existing threat, according to spokesman Phil Rooney. But Rooney said his department hasn’t received the kind of calls Salt Lake, Philadelphia, and Reno have.
One Shen Yun volunteer speculated to a local Omaha news outlet that the Chinese government had seeded the rumors. There’s no evidence Beijing is attempting to undermine and malign Shen Yun with a sickness scare, but coronavirus misinformation is running rampant elsewhere. State-backed Russian actors have spread misinformation about coronavirus, according to the U.S. State Department, a charge Moscow denies.
Though the fears of the dance troupe are unfounded, Scott Oxarat at the Washoe County Health Department, which governs Reno, Nevada, said he’s at least glad people are searching for information from reliable sources—that is, sources like his office. His department received two calls this week.
“Our job as experts is to answer these questions,” he said. He also noted that health departments across the country have faced a nearly insurmountable workload related to the coronavirus, though.
At least one baseless rumor alleges a conspiracy by Shen Yun leadership, according to an email to the Salt Lake City health department obtained by The Daily Beast via public records request. The department received four calls concerned about Shen Yun and coronavirus, according to spokesman Nicholas Rupp.
“A friend gave me news that this group just finished performing In Korea and a few of their members returned to the US with coronavirus symptoms but was prevented to seek medical help from their leader. They are suppressing their members to leak the news so no performing schedules will be interrupted,” the email reads. The writer’s name has been redacted in keeping with disclosure laws governing personal information.
There’s no truth to it, Rupp said. But the emailer even seemed to doubt the provenance of their own information, indicating a broader deluge of bogus intel may be fueling the questions put to public health departments.
Shen Yun did not respond to a request for comment for this story.