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Despite Coronavirus Concern, Lunar New Year Festival Goes On In San Francisco


Some U.S. cities have canceled their Lunar New Year celebrations this year because of safety concerns about the spread of the coronavirus beyond China. But in San Francisco, host to one of the oldest and largest festivals in the country, things are going ahead as planned this weekend. Chloe Veltman of member station KQED has this report.


CHLOE VELTMAN, BYLINE: 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 bombastic floats. They're for the city's Chinese New Year parade this weekend. 2020 is the year of the rat.

STEPHANIE MUFSON: We have rats everywhere.

VELTMAN: Mufson points sounds a pair of massive gold rats looking very pleased with themselves as they teeter on a pile of gleaming treasure.

MUFSON: Coins and ingots and nuggets of wealth.

VELTMAN: Another eye-catching larger-than-life critter wears white gloves and a jaunty red hat.

MUFSON: That red-and-white style with all of the intricate designs.

VELTMAN: And then there's a cute little gray guy dangling a watering can over a patch of grass.

MUFSON: So, yeah, a lot of different ways of interpreting the rat.

VELTMAN: For more than three decades, Donna Ng has been attending Lunar New Year celebrations in San Francisco. She says many things keep her coming back.

DONNA NG: The parade itself and then line-dancing dragons.

VELTMAN: She says she's not about to stay home because of the coronavirus.

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

VELTMAN: Fears about the spread of the virus have caused the cancellation of celebrations this year in cities of all sizes, including New York and Denver.

WILLIAM GEE: I know there's a lot of concern right now. And I think there's a lot of confusion, maybe even some misinformation depending on where you get it from.

VELTMAN: That's William Gee. He's one of the organizers of the San Francisco event. Gee says his team has been working through community concerns about the spread of the virus while maintaining a sense of perspective.

GEE: Health officials still consider San Francisco Bay area at very, very low risk. I mean, there are some health officials that actually say there's a higher risk of contracting the flu rather than the coronavirus.

VELTMAN: Gee says they're not taking any special precautions for the event this weekend.

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

VELTMAN: San Francisco's Department of Public Health is currently not recommending the cancellation of public events. And the city's deputy health officer, Susan Philip, is advising attendees to take the usual wintertime precautions - wash hands, cover coughs and sneezes and get a flu shot.

SUSAN PHILIP: And if people want to come out for the parade, they should feel free to do so.

VELTMAN: Despite fears of the virus, the organizers are still expecting thousands of people to show up for the San Francisco event. It's been going since the 1860s and has always brought a riot of color and activity to Chinatown with dancing lights and the many, many floats.

Back at the warehouse where they're building those floats, longtime festival attendee Donna Ng poses for a picture with one of the outsized model rats.

NG: I love the critter so much. I wish I could take him home, but they're huge.

VELTMAN: Ng hopes people won't stay away from this weekend's festivities because they're scared of getting sick. She says attendees can don masks if that makes them feel more comfortable, though she doesn't plan on wearing one herself.

For NPR News, I'm Chloe Veltman in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.