Ismael Melendez sympathizes with those who have lost a loved one to COVID-19.
He knows the feeling all too well.
“My cousin died from COVID in Delaware, leaving three children and a husband behind,” Melendez said. “It was heart-wrenching. No one could visit her before she died or be with her immediate family as they mourned her death.
“We couldn’t even have a viewing,” he said. “We were devastated.”
As he grieves the loss of his cousin, Melendez knows he needs to be careful to avoid becoming one of the more than 14.4 million people in the United States infected with the disease that has claimed more than 279,500 lives nationwide as of Saturday afternoon.
Being exposed to the coronavirus at work has been a major concern for the forklift operator.
“In the beginning, it was really stressful because as soon as it hit us, a lot of the older people that were working with us either quit or simply stopped coming to work,” Melendez said.
“That led to the rest of us having to do mandatory 12-hour shifts, which meant spending more time at work at the risk of being exposed,” he said.
“Quitting is not an option because I need money to support my family,” said Melendez, who lives in Lancaster Township with his wife and their two children, “but at times, it made me question whether it’s worth putting my own health and life at risk.”
Latinos around the country have been hit hard by the pandemic. In a report released in October, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that an analysis of 114,411 COVID-19-related deaths from May to August found that 24.2% of the deceased were Latino, a disproportionate number considering Hispanics make up 18.5% of the U.S. population.
Underlying health conditions such as diabetes, asthma and hypertension, and housing situations, including low-income and public housing, are several reasons experts give for why Latinos have been hit so hard by the coronavirus. Another reason is working in the service industry in restaurants, as well as retail and hospitality jobs.
However, the trend doesn’t seem to apply to the 60,000 Latinos that live in Lancaster County, where early testing and contact tracing are among efforts that have helped avoid a major spread of COVID-19 in the Latino community.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health, Lancaster General Health, WellSpan Health and UPMC Pinnacle did not provide COVID data for Lancaster County broken down by ethnicity for this story.
‘Putting a barrier to the disease’
Locally, there were more than 18,900 confirmed cases Saturday afternoon, with 531 deaths, according to Lancaster County’s COVID-19 data dashboard. Twenty-seven, or 5.1%, of the deceased were Latino.
“We are dramatically lower in terms of (Latino) deaths overall,” Edwin Hurston, Lancaster County's public health emergency consultant, said. “I don’t know that we can really identify one single issue as to why, but when you see lower-than-average numbers, it suggests responsible mitigation efforts like social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands and people not gathering in large groups. It’s reasonable to conclude that they are putting those into practice.”
Alisa Maria Jones, president and CEO of Lancaster Health Center, said the local Latino community has benefited from the combination of early testing and contact tracing along with “many folks working together.”
“Our first patients who tested positive were working in businesses with more than 100 employees, so we worked closely with those businesses to make sure they had the support they needed to keep everyone safe,” Jones said. “Contact tracing was important because we immediately connected with people to ask them to isolate if they tested positive and educated them about how to protect the rest of their families.
“It was basically about putting a barrier to the disease,” she said.
By early November, the center had administered a total of 3,295 COVID-19 tests. Of those, 2,240 were for Latinos, with 513 testing positive. Two patients who died of the virus were Latino.
“We were the first COVID testing site in the city, and from the very beginning implemented a plan to protect patients and staff,” said Nicole Specht, the center’s director of communications. “We launched a very aggressive grassroots marketing through social media to reach our non-English speaking clients.”
The center mapped out the positive cases to identify “hot spots” and reached the refugee population in partnership with Church World Service to ensure that language barriers were not preventing residents from accessing reliable information on how to protect themselves against infection.
“And now with the increase in positive cases, this is not the moment to stop. This is when we are supposed to be even more committed,” Jones said.
Staying in business
Like the local Latino population, Latino-owned business also appear to be bucking the trend when it comes to dealing with the pandemic.
Lancaster County’s economy seems different from what is trending in other areas, said Naomi Young, director of the center for regional analysis at the Economic Development Co.
“We haven’t had the brunt of the impact that other densely populated areas have experienced, and there are significant parts of our economy that have resumed operations,” Young said.
Leo Rodriguez’s Lancaster city barber shop was doing well when the pandemic hit.
“Then I had to close my ... shop at 143 E. King St.,” he said.
However, that wasn’t the end for Rodriguez, 60, who owns Hair & Barbering at DFB in downtown Lancaster. He relocated his business to a mixed-use property he owns on Water Street and now provides services to men and women in one location, which also is his home.
“This sort of flexibility is what business owners have to think about, so if a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic were to happen again, they’d be better prepared to handle it,” said Angel Rosario,Community First Fund senior community lender.
“I’m OK because from the very beginning I’ve had business mentors like Angel that have helped me developed a plan, taught me how to keep my overhead expenses low and during this crisis they also helped me secure funds from loan and grant programs to re-establish my business," Rodriguez said.
Having access to mentors, grants, micro lenders and other community partners ready to lend a helping hand has played a major role in the survival of these small businesses, ASSETS CEO Tina Campbell said.
“We are grateful to have worked strategically with our partners to cross-promote emergency funding sources to these businesses, in addition to information sessions in Spanish and English that have been extremely helpful in lowering the barriers to funding opportunities,” Campbell said.
Like Rodriguez, other local Latino business owners have adapted well to the coronavirus crisis.
“Because of the restrictions imposed by our government, most gatherings and social events had to be canceled or postponed,” Perfect Settings owner Daisy Pagán said.
When Pagán was allowed to reopen her wedding venue on Second and Locust streets in Columbia, she was only allowed to do so at a 50% capacity.
“That doesn’t work for most wedding receptions. It just didn’t work for us,” Pagán, 53, said. “So we refunded all the money to our current clients … it was the right thing to do. We also didn’t want to be a source for the spread of the virus, so we decided not to take any new clients for the rest of the year.”
Fortunately, Pagán was not solely dependent on the revenue from her reception hall. Her husband, Tony, is a chemical sales representative for a hygiene and infection-prevention company.
Others were forced to shut down for a while or let go of most of their staff, but they found creative ways to keep their businesses profitable and have since reopened their doors.
“I was lucky that I had saved for a rainy day, and I also have a very big family,” Luis Morales, owner of El Jardin Flower and Garden Shop said. “Since I reopened, my relatives have helped me run the business, and I’m making the deliveries myself.”
Meanwhile, at Sunrise Kids Daycare, owner Yaritza Andino, 37, said they are running at full capacity.
“When the pandemic first hit, we stayed open to care for 24 children whose parents were frontline workers,” Andino said. “We closed the center for several weeks but did not experience any loss of revenue. Demand for services has picked up since.”
At Fuego Latino Restaurant, in Elizabethtown, owner Gerson Morales said the funds he received from the payroll protection program are gone.
“But our staff is here, and we even have a new hire. Through it all, we have been able to even donate meals to feed families in need,” Morales said.
Through it all, Latinos here remain optimistic about the future.
“We are taking precautions, listening and adhering to the mandates and, in the end, being part of the solution,” Pagán said.
“No one knows what’s going to happen next. I think this pandemic has taught us to adapt to anything that comes to us and work around it,” he said. “Most importantly, we cannot go around worrying only about ourselves. We have to think of others. We have to support each other. It’s the only way we are going to make it.”