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In some NY communities hard hit by COVID-19, bodegas are lifelines

Jasmine Garsd Apr 24, 2020
One of hundreds of bodegas in New York City closed by COVID-19. Photo courtesy Francisco Marte

In some NY communities hard hit by COVID-19, bodegas are lifelines

Jasmine Garsd Apr 24, 2020
One of hundreds of bodegas in New York City closed by COVID-19. Photo courtesy Francisco Marte

Six weeks ago, Miguel Baez, who owns the Bodega Gourmet Deli in the Bronx, noticed something alarming. The cashier and the deli attendant were coughing incessantly and telling him their bodies ached.

Then he found out one of the guys who worked at a nearby market died of COVID-19.

And so Baez closed his bodega, which he said is one of the main food suppliers in his neighborhood. 

In New York City, these small shops sell everything from chopped cheese sandwiches to cartons of milk and rolls of toilet paper. Some neighborhoods depend on them as main suppliers of essential goods, especially in low-income communities, said Karan Girotra of Cornell University. 

“Big chains and others don’t find [these neighborhoods] profitable enough to sell. And the small kind of store has filled in that gap,” he said.

Francisco Marte’s bodegas are open, but he says it’s been challenging.

In New York, the Bronx is among the hardest hit areas by COVID-19. Francisco Marte owns three bodegas in the Bronx, and he heads up the Bodega and Small Business Association in New York.

“People come to hang out at the store when they leave work, when they have some troubles to discuss,” he said.

But that closeness has become a liability. Hundreds of bodegas in Marte’s association have had to close. 

Earlier this week, lawmakers set aside an additional $310 billion in aid to small businesses.

Baez, the owner of Gourmet Deli, has not applied for any loans. He’s heard from other owners that the process is a bureaucratic nightmare. But he’s thinking about asking for help now.

“It’s been chaos,” he said. “Electrical bills and rent are still due. Food has gone bad.”

Meanwhile, Marte’s bodegas are still open for business. It’s not easy.

But he thinks back to the ’80s, when he was a teenager, and he moved from the Dominican Republic to the Bronx. 

“In the ’80s, ’90s we [bodega owners] risked our lives being in dangerous areas,” he said.

He got his first bodega at a discount because it was such a rough neighborhood. 

He was robbed, got into fistfights, and he was shot. But he’s still a bodeguero, and says he’s here to stay. 

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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