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In Quincy, crowds thin as first coronavirus case in Massachusetts spurs precautions, fears

Volunteers wore masks at the annual Lunar New Year Festival at North Quincy High on Sunday. Crowds were sparse and lines for food almost nonexistent.
Volunteers wore masks at the annual Lunar New Year Festival at North Quincy High on Sunday. Crowds were sparse and lines for food almost nonexistent.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

QUINCY — Michael Fang, owner of C-Mart, an Asian supermarket with locations in Boston and Quincy, isn’t taking chances when it comes to the new coronavirus.

His cashiers are required to wear face masks and disposable gloves. Starting this week, his managers will begin taking workers’ temperatures. He has ordered masks, hand sanitizer, and thermometers in bulk from Amazon.

“The only thing we can do right now is make sure the store is more clean, and make sure you wash your hands and, you know, do whatever you can do to protect yourself and protect your customer," Fang said Monday. He guessed that about 20 percent fewer customers shopped at his stores over the weekend, because many are avoiding public places, worried the infection will spread farther.

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Coronavirus fears are mounting now that the first case has been diagnosed in Massachusetts, particularly in Quincy, home to the state’s second-largest population of Asian Americans outside of Boston. On Saturday, state health officials confirmed coronavirus in a University of Massachusetts Boston student who returned to Boston last week from Wuhan, the Chinese city at the center of the outbreak. The virus has sickened more than 20,000 people globally, including 11 people in the United States.

News of the virus loomed over the Lunar New Year Festival at North Quincy High School on Sunday. In a typical year, roughly 10,000 people turn up for the annual celebration, marking the new year of the Chinese zodiac.

Quincy Asian Resources hosted its annual Lunar New Year Festival at North Quincy High on Sunday but crowds were much smaller than usual.
Quincy Asian Resources hosted its annual Lunar New Year Festival at North Quincy High on Sunday but crowds were much smaller than usual.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

But concerns about coronavirus kept revelers at bay. Looking around for Vietnamese sandwiches and vegan ice cream in the cafeteria, where lines were short or nonexistent, Philip Chong, CEO of Quincy Asian Resources, the nonprofit behind the festival, guessed that this year’s event drew less than half its usual attendance. Tables were empty. A few vendors, volunteers, and performers backed out at the last minute. Dozens of youth volunteers, like Ying Loo, 17, a student at North Quincy High School, wore masks covering their mouths and noses.

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“It’s a safety precaution, especially after Boston announced there’s a patient with coronavirus,” Loo said. “Chances are low, but it’s better to be safer than sorry.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notified the home states of people who were seated within several rows of the UMass student on his flight to Boston, and public health agencies in those states have been contacting each of the travelers, said Massachusetts state epidemiologist Catherine Brown.

The rest of the people on the plane are not considered at risk, Brown said in an e-mail.

Based on the information so far, health officials believe the new coronavirus is spread by droplets from coughing or sneezing. That means only people in “close contact” — within six feet of an infected individual for at least 10 minutes — are at risk, Brown said.

Dr. Mark Gendreau, who has studied the spread of infections on airlines, said that if the young man was coughing and sneezing, the virus would float on mucus or saliva, heavy droplets that soon land on a surface.

“We don‘t know yet how long the virus survives outside the body on a surface,” said Gendreau, chief medical officer at Beverly Hospital. That’s why hand-washing is so critical. “Eighty percent of all infections are introduced because you touched a surface and then touched your eyes, nose, and mouth . . . Being human, we touch our face 200 times a day.”

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Gendreau added that, contrary to popular belief, aircraft ventilation does not tend to spread illnesses. Airlines keep the filters clean because dirty filters create a drag that burns up extra fuel. “You’ve got numerous air changes per hour going on,” he said. “The ventilation system on an aircraft is better than the circulation in an office,” he said.

As for the UMass student’s travels after he landed, health officials maintain there was no need to publicize his whereabouts the way they typically do with a measles case. Measles is extraordinarily contagious, remaining suspended in the air for several hours after the patient has left, unlike the new coronavirus, early evidence suggests.

The UMass student had just a handful of close contacts after getting off the plane, and all are being monitored, state Department of Public Health officials said. UMass spokesman DeWayne Lehman confirmed Monday that the infected student had sought treatment at the Columbia Point campus’s health clinic prior to his isolation.

Citing privacy concerns, local health officials declined to provide an update on the student’s condition, except to say the Boston Public Health Commission is maintaining regular contact with him “to ensure compliance [with isolation rules] and that all of his needs of daily living are met.”

To contain the illness, the Department of Homeland Security has instituted new travel restrictions for airline passengers attempting to enter the United States from China. The Department of Health and Human Services has also informed Congress it may need to transfer up to $136 million to help fight the growing epidemic.

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Wan Wu, general manager and co-owner Kam Man Food, a supermarket in Quincy, said he is encouraging his 120-plus employees to take care of themselves, particularly those returning from China after the recent Lunar New Year holiday. Since the outbreak, cashiers at Kam Man have been required to wear face masks, while many other employees have chosen to do so voluntarily, Wu said.

Wu said it’s still too early to tell whether business is down because of fears about the virus, the end of Lunar New Year, or increased competition from 99 Ranch, the newest Asian grocery store to open in Quincy.

“What we’re really doing is monitoring what’s going on,” Wu said. “At this point I’m not panicked.”

On Monday afternoon, Wu’s wait-and-see approach to concerns about coronavirus contrasted sharply with those of one of his customers, a primary care physician from the South Shore. Wearing a blue face mark and knit gloves, she was browsing for ramen noodles and other shelf-stable foods, like rice, in case she ends up in quarantine, she said.

The doctor, who declined to give her name, said her clinic suffered a coronavirus scare last week. Now, with a 7-month-old baby at home, she’s taking even more precautions, including keeping a change of clothes in her car, so that she get out of her dirty clothes in her garage.

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“People need to cut down on going out,” she said. “We have Skype. We have FaceTime. There’s no reason to put yourself and others at risk.”

Hanna Krueger of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Deanna Pan can be reached at deanna.pan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @DDpan. Felice J. Freyer can be reached at felice.freyer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @felicejfreyer