Taxi cabs line up outside LaGuardia Airport in Queens, New York, March 2, 2018. (Photo: Agencies)
New York City officials have spoken out against any prejudice by taxi, limousine and ride-share service drivers about picking up passengers over coronavirus fears.
The city is concerned about reports of bias by drivers in which Chinese and other Asian passengers are being avoided.
"If I drop off somebody in Flushing, I deactivate the app," an Uber driver told the New York Post about a Queens neighborhood with a large Chinese population. "I don't know who has it. … I worry for myself, my family and my passengers."
"I feel bad about it, but when I see Chinese passengers, I just go," a taxi driver told the Post.
"This is OUTRAGEOUS," Mayor Bill de Blasio wrote on Twitter over the weekend. "Let me be perfectly clear: there WILL be consequences for anyone caught taking part in this kind of cruel racial profiling. To our Asian American community: your city has your back and this discrimination will NOT be tolerated."
Taxi & Limousine Commission (TLC) Commissioner Aloysee Heredia Jarmoszuk said anyone who has experienced a problem to call the city's 311 help line. TLC drivers can be fined $500 if they have been found to discriminate against passengers.
"Not in our city. Fare refusal is illegal — we won't stand for discrimination against our Asian American community," she said in a tweet. "Fear is the enemy, not our neighbors."
"Any for-hire vehicle [driver] found to be discriminating against Asians, or anybody else, should be fired, plain and simple," City Council member Peter Koo of Flushing told the Queens Chronicle. "It is not a reason to discriminate against an entire population of people."
"Racial profiling and exclusion has long been a problem with some of New York's cab drivers and must be eradicated, but it remains to be seen whether recent reports of cabbie aversion to Asian Americans are more than anecdotal," state Senator John Liu told the weekly newspaper.
Octavia Philips, who was taking a Lyft ride on Jan 31 from Roosevelt Island to Sunset Park, Brooklyn, a neighborhood with a large Chinese presence, said her driver made derogatory comments about the animals consumed in China, particularly snakes, according to thedailybeast.com.
Phillips, who is not Asian, said she found it "kind of appalling" but didn't report the driver to Lyft, not wanting to jeopardize his livelihood.
While there may be some instances of Chinese passengers being shunned, there are drivers who have been welcoming.
A Chinese national working in New York told China Daily how an Uber driver was happy to take him, his father-in-law and wife from a cardiology clinic in Flushing to New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center on the Upper East Side of Manhattan on Sunday afternoon.
"After knowing that we were Chinese, he began immediately to praise the measures that the Chinese government has taken to control the coronavirus, noting that China locked down big cities and suffered short-term economic loss to stop the virus from spreading to the whole country and beyond its border," the rider said. "He showed us respect and displayed no discrimination at all. He even stopped on the highway to help fix my father-in-law's safety belt."
"All Pakistani people are praying for China, like me," the driver said. "They are praying in mosques, they are praying at home, and I am sometimes praying in my car," said the driver in his 60s.
"He even gave a thumbs-up for Chinese doctors and nurses, saying they are really bold men and women," the passenger said. "He later told us that one of his sons was studying in Beijing-based Capital Medical School and is now a doctor in Flushing."
Another driver outside Grand Central Terminal told pix11.com: "I take all people: Chinese, Pakistani, Bengali; I like all people."
"I would pick up anybody," another driver told the TV station. "I'm not afraid of the coronavirus."
Other US metropolitan areas have seen instances of discrimination against Asian passengers.
Eric Han, who works in a Microsoft retail store in Seattle, told CNBC that when he called for an Uber ride on Feb 3, he coughed upon entering the car, and the driver asked him if he was from China.
The driver then opened a window in the vehicle.
On Feb 2, Lilian Wang attempted to get into a Lyft ride-share at San Francisco International Airport, but the driver refused to open the door, according to CNBC.
Wang, a technology worker, said the driver let her in the car only after a Caucasian friend showed up.
A spokeswoman for Lyft told the San Francisco Chronicle on Feb 4 that the company had banned the driver.
"We take any allegation of discrimination very seriously and investigate all incidents," Dana Davis said.
Still, as with any health scare, some drivers have decided to look out for themselves.
"The feedback we're getting from drivers is that their safety is paramount to a rider's feelings and any potentially discriminatory issues," Harry Campbell, author of the Rideshare Guy blog, told the Los Angeles Times.
An Uber driver in the San Francisco area told thedailybeast.com in a Feb 6 report that he believed the company should have given drivers more guidance about any coronavirus threat.
"Whenever there's a service shutdown or surge pricing, they let people know," the driver said. "They're quick to do that."