On the Frontlines: Where Fear of Infection Increases With Every Order

Photo by Angie Hernandez Pena

For the past two weeks, restaurants in New York City have only been open for take out and delivery due to the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. The number of employees is at a minimum, but the amount of work has increased, say many workers, as the demand for delivery is very high.

To those on the frontline preparing food in the nation’s largest hotspot of coronavirus, the concern of getting infected increases with every order. It is no different at one Dominican restaurant in Washington Heights. The manager Katherine Mercedes, worries about her safety in the eatery, where the number of workers has gone down from 12 to four to man a 10-hour shift and each employee now works only four days a week. She did not comfortable revealing the name of the restaurant as its owner declined to be interviewed by the media.

Just getting home from work has become the scariest experience for Mercedes. Since March 15th, she’s worked every day from 2 p.m. to almost midnight, taking as many cleaning and protection precautions as possible, though she confesses many of her co-workers aren’t quite as meticulous as she is.

Every day at the restaurant, Mercedes says she wears two gloves and a mouth mask to speak to the six to 10 customers that are allowed inside the restaurant to place takeout orders. She changes her gloves and washes her hands every two hours. Nonetheless, with a five-year-old son, she worries about bringing the virus home.

She takes over 50 phone calls each day, she says, and together with two employees, sometimes more, she gets the orders ready for the delivery person.  This is the moment, she says, when her anxiety of getting infected is at its highest.

“The delivery person comes in and out and he doesn’t clean bags or washes his hands because we are so busy,” said Mercedes,  who added that she prepared over 40 orders for delivery on Friday alone.

She’s afraid of other things too.  The restaurant owner has no restrictions on payments, so she takes cash as usual and some customers walk in without protection.  Mercedes says that the business is making almost the same amount of money as if they were completely open, which she says is the main reason the owner does not shut down the business,  but she worries, they will lose more if they remain open much longer.

Every night when Mercedes gets off work, she takes an Uber, because she does not want to take subways under this circumstance and picks up her son from daycare. She does not touch him and he already knows that he must walk in front of her when she gets to her apartment building, where she opens the door and they both walk up 20 steps stairs to get to the third floor. She lets her son walk in first. He goes to the kitchen and washes his hands, while Mercedes walks into the hallway, closes the door behind her, puts all her clothes in a plastic bag, places the plastic bag in the laundry basket and takes a shower immediately.

Mercedes fears increased last week when a co-worker called out sick with multiple symptoms of the virus. The worker is now waiting for the test results.

Mercedes is just one of the many employees working scared in the 59 restaurants that are still open for business in the Washington Heights and Inwood community, but many restaurant owners throughout the city have already closed their doors completely.

The New York Police Department began a series of patrolling last Sunday to educate those open businesses on social distancing. As of last night, these reports showed that there were 29,180 restaurants closed for business.

As a result of this economic crisis that has led that more than three million Americans to file for unemployment, President Donald Trump signed a 2 trillion economic stimulus package. With the largest emergency aid in history, the government will send checks to individuals and families, give financial assistance and loans to small businesses and companies.

The situation seems to get worse every day. Positive cases in New York City have now reached over 30 thousand and over 500 people have died. For Mercedes, there is only one solution.

“Everything should just close until the situation subsides, it is the only way we can all save our lives,” she said.