A Covid epicenter comes back to life: “What you see is survival”

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Every day along Roosevelt Avenue in Queens, people flock from the elevated subway in a swarm of activity. The vendors ring bells and shout in Spanish: “Masks! The water! Crushed ice! – as smoke rises from the grilled meat and cumbia music rivals the rumble of the train.

Vibrant energy appears to have returned to the cluster of north-central Queens neighborhoods that has become the country’s first coronavirus epicenter. A year ago, thousands of people fell ill and hundreds died.

But under the turmoil hides despair. Vendors, whose wide array of street food reflects the region’s diversity, have often lost stable jobs and are unsure of how to make money otherwise. Residents and many business owners have fallen far behind on rents, protected only by a state moratorium on evictions set to expire at the end of the summer. The pantry lines remain long.

“The beauty of what we see is that the immigrant community always finds a way out,” said Francisco Moya, a local Democratic city councilor. But it should not be confused with recovery, he added. “What you see on Roosevelt Avenue is survival.”

Jenny Escobar, who once had a reliable job as a babysitter, now spends her days sitting on 82nd Street next to a cooler full of homemade popsicles that she sells for $ 2 apiece. “There is no work,” Ms. Escobar said. “There is nothing.”

Ms Escobar, who is from Colombia and as many interviewees spoke in her native Spanish, said that whatever she earns goes towards paying rent, and she was concerned what might happen to her and her fellow salespeople. ‘they were losing that lifeline. City agencies began to tighten enforcement again this summer, exposing unlicensed vendors to heavy fines.

At Make the Road New York, a community organization, about 600 people still collect food each week at their Jackson Heights site, organizers said, more than double the number served before the pandemic.

The interlocking neighborhoods – Corona, Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, East Elmhurst and Woodside – are home to a high concentration of undocumented migrants who have not been eligible for government aid such as stimulus checks and unemployment insurance.

Many are entitled to some newly created benefits, such as a state rent relief program and the Excluded Workers’ Fund – a $ 2.1 billion fund to make one-time cash payments to undocumented people. who lost their jobs. But the money for this fund is not yet available; state officials are still tweaking the distribution process.

There are promising signs of recovery. In Corona, one of the postcodes hardest hit by the pandemic in New York, hospitalizations have fallen to less than a dozen, and vaccination rates, which lag behind other places in the city, are creepy.

And while scattered businesses have closed – including medical, dental and legal practices – most stores and restaurants have remained open, according to the Queens Chamber of Commerce and other members of the local business community. Some of the area’s zip codes are even among the city’s handful that added more new businesses last year than the year before the pandemic.

But for the most part, recovery still seems a long way off.

“Lots of friends called to ask, ‘Is there a place where I can sleep? “said Patricio Santiago, a car washer from Mexico, who has earned about $ 200 a week throughout the pandemic, and whose family of four shares a one-bedroom apartment in Jackson Heights with a other family.

There has long been an underground housing market in the area: people sublet rooms in apartments to cover their own rent. The practice created overcrowding which fueled the spread of the virus and meant that many people – many of them men working to support families in Latin America – were evicted from rented rooms when they lost their jobs and their homes. income. Homeless camps have multiplied. After the end of the moratorium on evictions on August 31, the situation could worsen.

Leslie Ramos, executive director of the 82nd Street Partnership, the local business improvement district, said many business owners are also seriously behind on rent and survival because the moratorium on evictions also covered their leases.

“If you walk here you wouldn’t know the businesses are in trouble. Our streets are busy, very busy. But we know the reality is quite different, ”Ms. Ramos said.

Sonia Izurraga’s living room, Peruvian Connection, is operational in her small storefront in Jackson Heights. But Ms Izurraga said she fell far behind on rent when it was closed and couldn’t access the federal paycheck protection program and other small business help, because of his immigration status. She hopes to pay her landlord the three months of rent she still owes him. “Like I told the man,” she said, “Without loans all I can do is try.”

A hairdresser had brought in her son because she was unable to pay for childcare while her primary school was closed. Between lessons on his tablet, he brushed the hair off the floor.

The tight fabric of the neighborhood has allowed some businesses to hang on. When Glen Mirchandani reopened his jewelry store on 82nd Street, Devisons Jewelers, last year, he offered nurses at Elmhurst Hospital free discounts and repairs. It helped, he said, as did people’s personal stimulus checks. They wanted to support his three-decade-old business, he said, and have some fun. Its long-time owner gave it time. “He says, ‘Pay little by little,’” said Mr. Mirchandani, whose little store was full of customers one recent afternoon.

Restaurants that served free meals during the pandemic, such as Mojitos in Jackson Heights, have also seen grateful customers return.

But business in many places remains slow.

In Little Bangladesh, Jackson Heights, halal butchers, grocery stores, and clothing stores selling silk sarees have long relied on people from outside the region for their supplies. Those customers have still not returned in large numbers, said an employee of Khaamar Baari, a 73rd Street food market, who said he was not authorized by his employer to give his name.

Much of what could once be relied on is gone. Milton Montesdeoca, who drives a moving van, was sitting next to a row of these vans parked in Corona on a recent afternoon. Once he could count on two or three trips a week. Now, he said, hardly anyone is moving homes because of the moratorium on evictions. Here as elsewhere, there are ghosts. Two other movers died from the coronavirus, Montesdeoca said. Several had lost relatives. Everyone, he said, knows someone who is dead.

Shops and restaurants have also faced competition from the proliferating street vendors. Sales have dropped dramatically this year at Gato Verde, Maria Pullo’s little juice joint on Roosevelt Avenue, which she blamed on all the vendors selling jugos naturales, or fresh juices. “Nothing, kid,” she said of her winnings. “We pay for electricity, gas, rent,” she added.

“Sometimes I feel like closing up and going,” Ms. Pullo said.

Many here still wear masks, although the warrant has been lifted, but there are few other signs of the impact of the coronavirus on this part of Queens: a scattering of black ribbons, a few plastic photos of the missing. The struggle to get out has relegated grief to the background. But under the music and the chatter, he’s everywhere.

While chopping coconuts with a machete at his stand on 82nd Street, Aureliano Mendoza described the loss of a job he had held for more than a decade – distributing Mexican goods for a store in New York. Jersey – and get by, at one point, at $ 60 a month. He and his wife battled the coronavirus for weeks, but avoided the hospital, although he almost died. Then a sister in Mexico succumbed to Covid-19, Mr Mendoza said, as her eyes filled with tears.

Mr Moya, the city councilor, said the pandemic had exposed long-standing problems with housing, health care and employment that have made residents here particularly vulnerable to the virus and the shutdown. And as people struggle to move forward, he said, those inequalities persist. “We can’t pat each other on the shoulder and say, ‘Well, we’re making a comeback,'” he said.

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