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UW study finds Black-owned restaurants were disproportionately impacted during pandemic

In many cities, "Black-owned" labeling campaigns at restaurants resulted in a long-term decrease in visitation, according to new research.

SEATTLE — New research from the University of Washington found restaurants that identified as "Black-owned" in 2020 saw decreases in visits compared to those without a label. 

"In the long run, especially the last months of 2020, the Black-owned businesses declined faster than those restaurants that didn't reveal their ownership," said Bo Zhao, an associate professor of geography at the University of Washington, who led the study through his Humanistic GIS Lab.

In 2020 several companies began "Black-owned" labeling campaigns. They were designed to help customers support Black-owned businesses. However, the research released Monday by the University of Washington said there were statistically significant differences between Black-owned and “ownership-unreported” restaurants.

Zhao said his team looked at geographic information from 45 million cellphones in 20 cities. What they saw is most Black-owned restaurants saw an initial spike in business at the start of the labeling campaign, but data shows visits in many cities during the later months of 2020 declined faster at Black-owned labeled restaurants than locations where ownership wasn't reported. 

New Orleans and Detroit showed the greatest declines, while New York showed the least. Seattle's graph showed several ups and downs, which Zhao said indicates the difference between the two is not significant enough to draw a conclusion. 

Zhao wants the study to get the attention of tech companies that launched these labeling campaigns. He sees an opportunity for a tech company to think critically about how it supports the Black community. 

"It can definitely be improved, be more helpful if we think more critically about the consequences and also inform the community of color about the consequences," said Zhao, "There's a lot of room to make improvements from the tech companies, but also everyone."

The study further discovered while a restaurant can choose not to select a label, it can still be labeled as "Black-owned" based on previous online reviews. Zhao said a complete opt-out isn't an option. 

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