Coronavirus Spells Brutal Valentine’s Day for Shanghai Dining Spots

February 13, 2020Updated: February 13, 2020

SHANGHAI—As Valentine’s Day nears on Feb. 14, Shanghai restaurant owner Bill Hu finds himself unusually free.

The lights are out at seul & SEUL, his French fine dining spot in a high-end mall in China’s commercial hub, with wine glasses stacked up and the kitchen silent, save for two employees tasked with disinfection duties.

“The number of reservations this year is almost zero,” said Hu, when asked about preparations for the festival popular with many in China’s cities, a time when he is usually busy with plans for special menus and reservation bookings.

“This virus epidemic came all of a sudden,” added Hu, who said his restaurant had about 170 customers last Valentine’s Day. “Many customers who had made reservations all called in to cancel.”

His is just one of many businesses reeling from the impact of a coronavirus outbreak that spurred harsh travel curbs across China, with authorities encouraging people to stay home, leaving large cities looking like ghost towns.

The past few weeks had been “brutal,” said Austin Hu, the chef at Heritage by Madison, a high-end restaurant nestled by the river on Shanghai’s famed Bund.

“Valentine’s Day is kind of sad so far, we have one booking at the moment,” he added. “It’s going to take a while for the confidence to come back. “The real question is whether we can last long enough.”

The outbreak has taken a growing toll as curbs adopted before the Lunar New Year holiday, a high season for tourism and hospitality, continue after city authorities extended the holiday to beat the virus and set Feb. 10 for work to resume.

Some restaurants are trying to make up by offering meal deliveries, but others are struggling with shortage of staff.

And some potential customers say they are simply not in the mood to celebrate.

“I am not going to risk my life going out for a meal,” said Dina Li, who scrapped the idea of dining out with her husband this year to avoid contagion, despite 10 days spent at home.

“And even for take-out, I only order KFC and McDonald’s, as the big brands should guarantee food safety.”

At the Shanghai mall, seul & SEUL’s Hu said he was anxious for an end to the crisis, estimating that his losses are already around 700,000 yuan ($100,272.17), mostly from payments for rent, salaries and ingredients.

“For those of us with zero income, our cash flow could probably survive for another one to two months,” he added. “And that’s the limit.”

By Winni Zhou and Andrew Galbraith