The normally-accessible Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center in Minneapolis building is locked, and no one is allowed to enter unless they work there. The mosque inside the center is also locked. Credit: Dymanh Chhoun | Sahan Journal

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As the threat of coronavirus spreads across the state and country, local immigrant organizations and businesses are responding in different ways.

On Monday afternoon at the Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center in Minneapolis, one of the largest mosques in Minnesota, workers have been busy cleaning offices, hallways, and classrooms for students who study the Qur’an. The normally-accessible building is locked, and no one is allowed to enter unless they work there. The mosque inside the center is also locked.

The decision to close the Islamic center, which came on Friday, was not an easy one, said Abdullahi “Abdiwajid” Farah, executive director of the center. “The community could not believe we were closing the mosque,” Abdiwajid said. “This is unprecedented.”

Some members of the mosque suggested that the imam should combine prayers (Muslims pray five times a day, mostly in congregation; one prayer falls early in the morning and two fall in the afternoon; the last two take place in the evening).

On Friday afternoon, mosque board members and administrators held a four-hour meeting during which they debated whether or not to close the center. At the end, mosque leaders, over the objections of a few, decided to close the whole center. They distributed fliers to attendees about the novel coronavirus, known as COVID-19, which described how people can protect themselves and others.

“We had enough evidence to support our decision,” Abdiwajid said, citing the spread of the coronavirus in the state and Minnesota Governor Tim Walz’s recommendation to limit gatherings. He also noted that a lot of elders come to the mosque who are “very vulnerable” to the virus.

In a hallway at Abubakar As-Saddique, Abdullahi Osman, a Quranic teacher at the center, held his iPhone and listened via speaker as one of his students recited from the Qur’an. As the student recited verses, Abdullahi corrected him, and the student repeated them properly.

Abdullahi said that over the weekend, when the center usually buzzes with kids and chants of the Qur’an, his students stayed home and called him one by one. He conducted lessons via the phone from 10:00 a.m. until 8:00 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. “They already missed coming to the center,” he said. “They don’t want to stay home.”

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A few blocks from the mosque, Ahmed Abdi, a cashier at Kaah Restaurant at the 24 Mall on East 24th Street, stood at the counter. He took orders from customers who trickled into the restaurant. Some stood next to each other near a cramped entrance. Others sat in the dining area.

Ahmed said business has been going well overall, though he has seen a slight decrease in traffic. As he handed orders to customers who’d come for takeout, one customer asked why he wore gloves. “Some of the customers are scared,” he responded.

*   *   * 

As of Monday afternoon, both the Hmong Village Shopping Center, on Johnson Parkway, and the Hmongtown Marketplace, on Como Avenue–both in St. Paul–were operating under normal business hours. But management at both locations was considering changes

“We are actually in a meeting right now discussing the hours and our response planned for the coronavirus,” Hmongtown Marketplace General Manager Jamie Liu said.

Thomas Herr, general manager of Hmong Village, said he and his staff are closely monitoring the novel coronavirus situation, including the actions of other shopping centers and malls.“At this time there’s no change yet,” Herr said.

The vendors inside Hmong Village expressed varying degrees of concern. Kham Su Lor, who runs the Lor Imports & Custom PC shop, said he was worried that the state’s recommendation to avoid large public gatherings might decrease traffic to bustling markets like the shopping center.

Lor, who fixes personal electronics, said he was taking precautions by wiping down the devices he works on with alcohol wipes and using alcohol hand sanitizer after touching each computer. “I’m being very cognizant of that,” he said.

Down the hall from Lor’s shop, Achi Vang, who works at the Blueberry boba tea stand, said he was willing to scale back his hours if necessary. He had just bought a box of toilet paper for himself to prepare for any future lockdowns. “I’m ready,” Vang said. “If they say shut it down, we’ve got to do it.” 

*   *   * 

On Friday afternoon, jasmine rice was in short supply at both Hmong Village Shopping Center and Hmongtown Marketplace. Johnathon Herr, who works the cash register at 68 Market in Hmong Village, said his new supply of jasmine rice was gone within 10 minutes last week. 

More than 100 people lined up near the parking lot of Hmongtown Marketplace late Friday afternoon to buy 50-pound bags of Martin brand jasmine rice, which had just been delivered that morning. Hundreds of bags sat in a pile in the middle of the asphalt, partitioned off from the public by orange cones. 

As people drove into the parking lot, a security guard coordinated car traffic while another worker wearing a neon vest used a megaphone to direct the customers buying rice.

“There’s going to be a shortage of rice, and that’s a concern for both of our families,” said Tsuesim Her, who, with his girlfriend, was buying three bags. One bag, Her said, usually lasts his family for two to three weeks.

Aaron Yang, who waited in line with his family, said he just needed a few bags of rice to get by for the next several weeks. “Our household is not that big,” he said.

Kevin Xiong, who owns Coco’s Island bubble tea shop inside Hmongtown Marketplace, said getting this much rice at one time was unusual for the market. “Some people are scared,” Xiong said. “They’re locking down and preparing.” 

Xiong said he wasn’t too concerned about the coronavirus pandemic himself, and emphasized that he was taking standard precautions like periodically washing his hands. 

*   *   * 

As of last weekend, Latino-dominant churches in Minneapolis were scaling back activities in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

At Holy Rosary Church in the Phillips neighborhood, all church and community activities besides mass have been suspended.

Incarnation Catholic Church in south Minneapolis also held mass over the weekend, though that may change soon. Antonia Alvarez, a member of Incarnation, said she’s planning to attend an emergency meeting with church leaders on Tuesday, where they will decide whether mass will continue this week and into next weekend. She said she was preparing for the services to be canceled.

Alvarez, who also runs a house cleaning business, said half of her clients canceled this week, and that she was worried about the impact this would have on her employees, many of whom are single mothers and immigrants.

“They pay rent,” Alvarez said. “They pay bills and pay for food for their kids, so I’m concerned about my employees.”

Sahan Journal’s health coverage is supported in part by a generous gift from Delta Dental of Minnesota.

Mukhtar M. Ibrahim

Mukhtar M. Ibrahim is the founder, editor and executive director of Sahan Journal, a nonprofit news organization that covers immigrant and refugee communities in Minnesota. He oversees the organization's...

Joey Peters

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. His work has appeared in Reuters, Public Radio International, Columbia Journalism Review, KFAI Radio, the Pioneer Press, City Pages, MinnPost and more. He previously...