At a performance by the ubiquitous Chinese dance troupe Shen Yun, the only thing audiences risk exposure to is a little culture and some religious and political propaganda. But for the past few days, health officials in Utah have had to quash social media-fueled rumors linking the dancers to covid-19, better known as the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Even in states like Utah, which have no confirmed reports of coronavirus infection, concerns over the outbreak have grown as the virus has infected nearly 80,000 people across Asia, Europe, North America and Australia. The growing concerns have prompted significant misinformation — and a rise in anti-Asian prejudice.

The Shen Yun performances scheduled to begin Tuesday were preceded by days of inaccurate rumors circulating around Salt Lake City claiming that the dancers had recently come from South Korea and may pose a health risk, said Nicholas Rupp, a spokesman with the Salt Lake County Health Department. Calls to local and state health departments about coronavirus are not unusual, but the link to Shen Yun was “something new this weekend,” Rupp told The Washington Post on Monday night.

The County Health Department on Monday issued an announcement via Twitter reminding people that coronavirus risk is linked to recent travel to China, where the outbreak originated, and not to groups of people or particular ethnic groups.

Epidemiologists with the Utah Department of Health have been averaging about 25 calls a day about coronavirus, which department spokeswoman Charla Haley characterized as high.

“We heard some rumors that were going around in regards to the Shen Yun troupe, and we just wanted to make sure people knew it was safe to go to the performance, that we weren’t worried about any of the dancers having coronavirus,” Haley told The Post.

Shen Yun issued a statement confirming that the coronavirus outbreak was not affecting performances and reminding audiences that members of the New York-based group that comprises seven traveling dance companies are in fact banned from China.

“Shen Yun is based in New York, not China. Performers have not been to China in years, have not had recent direct contact with people from China, and in fact Shen Yun is not even allowed to perform in China,” the company said in Feb. 1 press statement.

The dance group is perhaps best known for its relentless advertisements (and seemingly bottomless marketing budget) that proliferate throughout dozens of major U.S. cities. In China where Shen Yun is banned, Communist Party leaders have called the group “an anti-society cult” for its promotion of Falun Gong religious practices. Shen Yun members and Falun Gong adherents say they are persecuted religious and political exiles.

Haley, with the Utah Department of Health, said it was unclear who started the rumors linking Shen Yun to coronavirus or why.

“I guess location and lack of knowledge about where they’re actually from; I mean that is the only thing I can attribute it to,” Haley told The Post.

The World Health Organization has urged government agencies, among others, to do what they can to prevent discrimination against specific populations, since stigmatization can fuel the spread of the outbreak by driving marginalized individuals to hide infection and avoid seeking treatment.

Read more: