SPENCER MICHELS: The normally teeming streets of San Francisco's Chinatown are strangely quiet, a reflection of fears about SARS, even though there are only two suspected cases in the entire city. 20 percent of the city's population is of Chinese descent, and many frequently travel to China and Hong Kong. Longtime Chinatown political activist Rose Pak says fear has hurt business severely.
ROSE PAK: They don't come here to shop, they don't come here to eat, even the non-tourist group.
SPENCER MICHELS: How serious is it, in terms of the community, in terms of business, that kind of thing?
ROSE PAK: It's serious enough that I think the businesses on the margin are going under.
SPENCER MICHELS: Really?
ROSE PAK: Yes.
SPENCER MICHELS: Many of those who do come, like this class from Sacramento, thought about canceling.
STUDENT: One person in our class, her mother wouldn't let her come, and she was worried that there is SARS here, and there might be an attack here.
SALLY BROTH, Teacher: We did a lot of research. We called the Health Department. We had an extra parent meeting. We certainly wouldn't bring our students to an unsafe place.
SPENCER MICHELS: Nevertheless, since many Chinese Americans travel frequently to Asia for business or family reasons, Bay area health officials are concerned about a potential outbreak here, and so is the community.
WOMAN: You see. It's all SARS.
SPENCER MICHELS: Chinese language newspapers and television have been filled with SARS news.
WOMAN: No school.
SPENCER MICHELS: Wow.
WOMAN: Yeah, SARS. They're all SARS.
SPENCER MICHELS: Really? Chinese Hospital, a 45-bed facility in the heart of Chinatown, has prepared for SARS by posting notices, readying isolation rooms, examining people with flu-like symptoms, and keeping recent travelers home. Although not one case has been diagnosed in Chinatown, infection control coordinator Dr. Stuart Fong says the measures are necessary.
DR. STUART FONG, Chinese Hospital: I think it's... it's the unknown. It's a new thing. It's something that happened very quickly without anyone knowing, and it got out of hand back in Hong Kong. And then if anyone goes to Hong Kong, it will spread easily nowadays with travel and whatnot.
SPENCER MICHELS: Because of SARS, travel is down. Flights bringing tourists and business people to California from China are unusually empty.
SPOKESMAN: There were 90 people on United Airlines.
SPENCER MICHELS: 90 people, and the plane seats about 300?
SPOKESMAN: Yeah, about 350.
SPENCER MICHELS: And outgoing flights are even more empty, as Americans cancel trips to Asia. At a Chinatown travel agency, Simon Ho was putting off his vacation in China.
SIMON HO: It didn't take much thinking at all. The money issue is really secondary, we think. We think it's more... I think we're more concerned about this epidemic.
SPENCER MICHELS: Manager Terry Lam says many of her clients for domestic travel are afraid to come to Chinatown to pick up tickets, and foreign travel is off 80 percent.
TERRY LAM, Starlight Travel Service: People are scared to go because of the virus, because you don't know what you're getting into. And when you come back, you know, you're friends are afraid to associate with you. They want you to be quarantined for at lease seven days. So that means instead of taking a one-week vacation, you have to take vacation for two weeks.
SPENCER MICHELS: Fear of infection from people recently in Asia has prompted many of Chinatown's 200 Chinese family associations, which are business and self- protection groups, to post notices, notices that Rose Pak believes spread panic.
ROSE PAK: Whoever is recently coming back from Southeast Asia, Hong Kong, Vietnam, China, please don't come here at all. This is utterly nonsense.
SPENCER MICHELS: But there's a lot of SARS in Asia, people are afraid of it.
ROSE PAK: Yeah, but not here.
SPENCER MICHELS: But Chinatown is filled with elderly people susceptible to infection. And so the director of the agency that operates this senior housing center defends being extra careful.
ANNI CHUNG, Self Help for the Elderly: It's better to be a little cautious, to not, because the disease is still unknown and we're not sure exactly how it's spread. And you're right, some seniors might have been exposed to relatives say that come from China, and we wouldn't know unless they were coughing, you know, or sneezing, or have symptoms.
SPENCER MICHELS: Chung has told her staff to stay home if they've traveled, and she has encouraged education of employees on SARS, and how to avoid it. Esther Wong demonstrated proper hand-washing techniques.
ESTHER WONG: Getting your hand wet and then soapy. Okay, how? Rubbing it. ( Laughter )
SPENCER MICHELS: Chinese Americans have taken other precautionary measures for themselves and for relatives in China.
SPOKESMAN: I would say now this is the most expensive one we have for the store. It's called version n-95.
SPENCER MICHELS: Pharmacy owner Patrick Ng sells masks that may curtail the spread of the SARS virus.
PATRICK NG: I would say now over 14,000.
SPENCER MICHELS: What are people doing with these masks?
PATRICK NG: I would say about four or five weeks ago people buy it and ship it back to Hong Kong or Far East.
SPENCER MICHELS: Reporter: Yeah.
PATRICK NG: And then, oh, two or three weeks ago, they buy the masks, and then they just have it ready.
SPENCER MICHELS: In Chinatown's cramped, low-cost housing, seniors who speak limited English are all too aware of SARS, but unclear on what to do about it. Several community groups have sent Cantonese-speaking workers, like Hoi-Yee Cheung, to show residents how to avoid the virus.
SPENCER MICHELS: Even with nearly 50 suspected cases, though no deaths, in California, San Franciscans are for the most part playing it safe, unsure if any of the measures they are taking will protect them.