By Maya Brown
Daniela Ulloa saw the line of cars wrap around the restaurant. As she walked into the Sonic in East Meadow, her surgical mask covering most of her face, she knew that April 25 was going to be a busy day. Ulloa works in the kitchen with at least thirteen other staffers every shift. Despite state mandates for social distancing, Ulloa is never six feet away from anybody during her 30-hour work week. But being unemployed is not an option for her.
“I have to work to pay my expenses, I’ve been working nonstop for the past three years,” Ulloa said. “There are people who don’t even have health insurance. It’s for the same reason that when they feel sick, they don’t go to the doctor.”
Even though anyone can contract the coronavirus, the spread of the pandemic shows a more defined pattern: African American and Hispanic residents of lower-income areas who work essential jobs are dying because of the illness more frequently than people from more affluent communities, non-essential workers and people who can continue their job remotely.
Ulloa lives in Hempstead, where 1,559 coronavirus cases were reported as of April 21, the highest count in Nassau County. Hempstead has a population of 55,399 in a 3.7 square mile radius, a very densely populated area. Almost 47% residents are Hispanic and 45% African American. Almost half of the town’s population earned a yearly average under $50,000 and more than half of the population lives in a multi-unit building. Many of Hempstead residents are essential workers and, due to their living conditions, it’s is also harder for them to enforce social distancing measures.
“COVID-19 does not discriminate as a virus, but our society of healthcare and economic opportunities do,” Dominador Pascual, the Third District Democratic leader, said. “African American and Hispanic communities lack the same resources and are vulnerable in ways whiter and richer communities are not.”
Long Island reflects an unequal toll trend, as data from the New York State Health Department shows that 17% of Nassau County residents who died from the virus were Black, higher than their 12% representation. In Suffolk County, 11% of deaths were Black residents, higher than their nearly 8% share of the county’s population.
“While everybody is impacted, Black and Latino folks are disproportionately dying from the virus at elevated rates than other folks,” Dr. Michael McAfee, CEO of PolicyLink, a research institute focused on racial equity, said. “COVID-19 is simply a reflection of our disinvestment in communities. It now has a consequence.”
The higher infection and death rates in lower-income groups are also connected to larger household sizes, access to healthcare and years of structural racism, according to the Center for Urban and Racial Equity. The COVID-19 data seen in numbers shows that social distancing and an adequate support system are ultimately privileges that reflect racial and socioeconomic status.
Compared to 16% of non-Hispanic whites, 49% of Hispanic and African American workers are employed in service industry jobs, according to a 2018 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“These communities work many essential worker jobs such as health care, cleaning, transportation, sanitation, construction and landscaping, where taking leave is not really an option,” Pascual said. “The lack of economic security faced by these communities forces many to work.”
Although all non-essential businesses in the state have been forced to shut down amid the coronavirus outbreak, fast food chains are currently considered essential workplaces and are open for pick-up and delivery services.
In the U.S., more than 3.7 million people depend on paychecks from these fast food chains and working from home is not an option. Krystel Chambo, a resident of Freeport, N.Y., has worked at McDonald’s for five years and continues to do so during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I need the money to pay for my bills,” Chambo said. “I do need to support myself, as well as to help my parents.” In Freeport, there are currently 1,109 coronavirus cases, the second highest in Nassau County.
Throughout Long Island, towns that have been hit the hardest back up the statistics: the data shows that they all have a high percentage of minorities and are lower income areas.
“Many recent reports have shown discrepancies in the impact of COVID-19 between urban and rural communities,” Lauren Rauh, a graduate research assistant at the City University of New York Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy, said. “This likely points to overcrowded living conditions in cities and who is able to social distance due to housing or work situations.”
Even though Garden City, a predominantly white and wealthier community, is right next to Hempstead, it is only home to 181 coronavirus cases, has a low percentage of minorities and is a relatively high-income area. Garden City has a population of 22,533 in a 5.3 square mile radius, with 5% being Hispanic and 2% African American. Thirteen percent of the town earned under $50,000 and more than three-quarters of the population live in a private residence.
“I find it interesting that the upper class somehow always seems to come out the winner in these ‘emergencies,’ or is that just an accident?” Katherine Garry, the director of the Many Races Cultural Foundation, Inc. said.
The way that African Americans and Hispanics on Long Island are grouped in less-integrated and less-resourced communities is an effect of structural racism, redlining and discriminatory policies — all which go back to the federal government and the way that the country was developed, Elaine Gross, President of ERASE Racism, a regional organization that leads public policy advocacy campaigns and initiatives to promote racial equity, said.
“In particular, when they were making the decisions on which housing developments are going to be supported, they looked at the country and quite literally drew red lines around areas on the map where Black people lived,” she said.
In Suffolk County, Brentwood has 2,986 coronavirus cases and Central Islip has 1,461 — both towns with a high minority population.
“At times, these areas have struggled to find their voice and be heard for what they need … every community should be treated equally with resources and information needed during any crisis,” New York State Senator Monica Martinez said.
Many residents in these communities only speak Spanish, which prevents them from understanding the information on how to protect themselves and their close ones. In Brentwood, 63% of adults speak Spanish at home, and in Central Islip, 42% are Spanish speakers at home.
“The communities of Brentwood and Central Islip often feel left behind by their elected officials, which is why I pride myself on being accessible and translating documents to assist in disseminating information via social media as well as old school newspapers,” Martinez said.
But it is the African American community specifically which is at a loss when it comes to healthcare and health insurance. Compared to whites, Hispanics are almost three times as likely to be uninsured, and African Americans are almost twice as likely to be uninsured, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“In some instances, that means that the Black patients are not getting the medications and treatment that they should get,” Gross said. This equity gap in health care makes coronavirus even more lethal for African Americans.
“There are stigmas assimilated by Long Islanders about these communities and along with those stigmas comes the lack of racial diversity,” Jennifer Pierre, a resident of Wyandanch, N.Y. and a sophomore at Molloy College, said.
Gross, who has led research and reported on fair housing, said that there is a terrible shortage of affordable housing on Long Island, which has led to the overcrowded communities of both Black and brown people.
“It’s sad because so many Black neighborhoods are basically ghetto confinements, and they’re overcrowded because we are not given the same opportunities as others when it comes to jobs and education … ” Eboni Rodgers, a 20-year-old student at Marymount Manhattan College, said.
In Long Island, New York City, and the state as a whole, COVID-19 has brought these disparities to a stark contrast.
“The solutions are beautifully outlined in a gazillion reports out there,” Dr. McAfee said. “All you gotta do is pick up any document and get to work. The question is do we have a heart — the heart and the commitment to design a nation that actually works with everyone, and that’s the hardest part for folks.”