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OAKLAND — Amador Angel Luna knows his Oakland neighborhood is at the heart of one of the Bay Area’s worst coronavirus outbreaks, so he does everything he can to protect himself. But as an essential worker living in a crowded apartment, there are some risks he can’t avoid.
At an age where many would have retired, the 73-year-old Mexican immigrant takes BART to San Francisco every weekday, working on a small construction crew that remodels homes. He doesn’t leave the worksite to get lunch. His son, a doctor in Southern California, calls regularly to remind him to be careful. Luna always wears a mask and follows all the health department’s guidelines.
“I worry that suddenly I’ll get it and well, I’m over 70 years old now, but I’ve always been healthy, strong, as you can see,” he says on a Sunday morning as he’s volunteering to pick up trash and abandoned furniture around Fruitvale. “Being active, I think, has kept me that way.”
At the end of the day, Luna returns to the apartment he shares with his nephew, his nephew’s wife and their four children — three adult sons and a young daughter. Five of the seven residents in the three-bedroom apartment off 35th Avenue, which runs through the center of Fruitvale, work outside the home. But even at home, where they are supposed to feel safe, everyone wears a mask inside.
The precautions weren’t enough. On the last day in July, Luna took his third coronavirus test. He didn’t want to be an asymptomatic spreader. This one came back positive. So did the tests for several of his co-workers.
Luna’s is one of more than 1,300 COVID-19 cases in Fruitvale’s 94601 ZIP code, which has more infections than any neighborhood in Alameda County, the Bay Area’s hardest-hit county. This tight-knit community, where families with strollers are a common sight and the corner fruit vendor greets people by name, is a painful case study in why the Bay Area’s Latinx residents have been disproportionately affected by COVID: Many here are essential workers, like Luna, who live in crowded homes where it’s impossible to isolate. The ZIP code, which is 50 percent Latinx and one of the poorest in the region, has about 3 percent of the county’s population but 11 percent of all cases. That’s 256 cases per 10,000 residents, nearly four times the county’s overall rate.
In more than a dozen interviews, many in Spanish, residents, business owners, elected officials and health experts said Fruitvale has been battered by the coronavirus, which is destroying businesses, leaving empty streets that no longer feel safe, and casting a heavy, inescapable shadow over the adults and children who call this neighborhood home.
OAKLAND, CA – JULY 17: A young boy enjoys his ride making wheelies between the Fruitvale BART station and Fruitvale Village in Oakland, Calif., on Friday, July 17, 2020. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
Every morning, La Clinica de la Raza’s workers see the toll the virus is taking. They set up their testing site in a parking lot next to the Fruitvale BART station.
For the next six hours, the workers hear the stories, stopping only for lunch. There is the minivan where seven or eight members of one family all worried they had been exposed and needed to get tested. The health care worker who broke down in tears during her test, worried about an outbreak at work. The construction worker who needed proof of his positive test so his boss will help him pay the rent. The woman who angrily asked, what’s the point of the test if you can’t give me a place to quarantine?
Sometimes the clinic staff can tell right away a patient will be positive, no need to wait three days for results. Abidaila Rios, who checks in patients, had a case like that recently.
“He was an elderly man, and I felt he was really, really sick,” said Rios, who normally works for La Clinica’s school dental health program. “There are days I sit in my bed and cry, and my family knows I’m tired and angry and sad.”
The next day she comes back and does it all over again. Of the 150 tests La Clinica performs each day, on average 45 will come back positive. That’s 30 percent, a rate more than six times the county average.
Paletero man Carlos Hernandez Regalado makes change for a woman who bought a popsicle along International Boulevard in the Fruitvale district in Oakland, Calif., on Friday, July 17, 2020. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
At the Native American Health Center, which has been doing testing just a couple of blocks from La Clinica’s popup, about 13 percent of Latinx patients’ tests came back positive, said COO Greg Garrett. Asian-Americans, the next closest group, had a 2.3 percent positivity rate. He said the stress and fear are real for his employees, including a single mother who lives in the neighborhood and worries who would take care of her children if she can’t work.
Many Fruitvale residents work in health care, food service, grocery stores and other essential industries that put them at a much higher risk of exposure because they can’t avoid contact with others. They then go home to crowded, multigenerational housing where the risk of contagion is always present. In one-third of Latinx homes in 94601, there is more than one person in every room that isn’t a bathroom. In Oakland as a whole, just 8 percent of homes have more than one occupant per room.
That’s had a tangible impact. Requests for behavioral health services at Garrett’s clinic are up about 160 percent. Part of that, he said, is the stress on many Latinx workers, who work in industries that are both high-risk and low-paying, and have been devastated by the virus and lockdown orders, such as hospitality and retail. “We rely on them on one hand, they’re being laid off in the other,” he said. “This is causing them anxiety, fear.”`
That fear is very real to Abigail Martinez, who owns a women’s clothing store on International Boulevard called Aby’s Boutique, as well as a store specializing in quinceañera dresses. She opened her boutique for three days in a recent week — she’d had to cut back because the empty streets no longer felt safe from robberies and petty crime. Not a single customer came in.
“Sometimes I don’t even have enough to eat. That tells you everything,” Martinez said, sitting at the counter with her five-year-old daughter, Cecilia. “We’re getting to the limit and we don’t know what we’ll do.”
She was approved for $150 a month in food assistance but hasn’t received her debit card yet. Her sisters, who also get assistance, have been dropping off lunch to help. Her landlord gave her a break on her commercial rent, but she still struggles to pay the $1,250 a month. She can no longer afford the insurance on her car, so now she’s paying off a loan for a vehicle she can’t drive.
She’s worried about the virus so she and Cecilia got tested at La Clinica — the results came back negative. Still, she said she’s depressed, seeing people who aren’t working receive help while she’s struggling to survive. Sometimes her daughter will ask her to buy her candy and she has to say no.
“‘Mami, I want this,’” Martinez said her daughter will say. “‘I want a lollipop,’ (but) I don’t have money.”
Abigail Martinez and her daughter Cecila, 5, stand inside her store, Aby’s Boutique, in the Fruitvale district in Oakland, Calif., on Friay, July 31, 2020. Martinez’ business is stocked with dresses and other merchandise and hasn’t sold anything because of the pandemic and has struggled affording food for herself and Cecilia. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
Two blocks east on International Boulevard is El Huarache Azteca, which has been serving Mexico City-style food for years. Owner Eva Saavedra said the best compliment she can get is someone saying her food tastes just how their grandmother used to make it. She doesn’t hear that as much these days — the restaurant is doing 10 to 15 percent of the business it normally does. It was able to stay afloat thanks to regular orders of food for essential workers from Stephen and Ayesha Curry’s nonprofit, Eat Learn Play and World Central Kitchen, run by celebrity chef José Andrés.
She has converted a side patio into outdoor seating, complete with a mural of an Aztec princess and a hummingbird on some plywood covering a back entrance to the kitchen. But she worried about the risk of infection from staying open. “People aren’t being careful,” Saavedra said. “If people don’t take care of themselves, they won’t take care of us.”
The pandemic couldn’t have come at a worse time for her family business, which had already been buffeted by the construction of a nearby bus rapid transit lane.
“I guarantee you, 20 to 30 percent of those businesses are already out of business, and the majority are not going to make it,” said former Oakland councilman Ignacio de la Fuente, whose district included Fruitvale. “It’s a tragedy.”
Unlike other parts of Oakland, where streets have been closed to allow restaurants to take over sidewalks, few businesses in Fruitvale have been able to expand outdoors, he said. Many haven’t received any financial assistance either.
“How can you, as a city, claim that diversity is beautiful?” de la Fuente said. “Well, thank you very much, that sounds great. How about we help them survive?”
Working Solutions, a San Francisco-based community development financial institution, is trying to help. It partnered with the city to give out $1 million in grants to low-income business owners. Within a week, close to 1,000 people applied, said CEO Sara Razavi. In Fruitvale’s ZIP code, 116 received grants. In Uptown’s 94612, a third the size of 94601, 101 businesses got grants.
“Our vision is, through entrepreneurship, people can move out of poverty,” Razavi said. “But the reality is that this is going to be a long-term impact.”
Fruitvale is no stranger to the kinds of problems poverty and disinvestment can bring. Oakland Councilman Noel Gallo, whose district includes Fruitvale, said before coronavirus, the community dealt with a lead paint scandal. A 2016 report found children in the 94601 ZIP code had elevated levels of lead in their blood at three times the national average. There was the Ghost Ship fire that killed 36 people just a few blocks west of La Clinica’s testing site. And there’s the crime. Gallo said he’s seeing signs new drug cartels are moving into the neighborhood.
Gallo, who coordinates the weekend neighborhood cleanups where Luna, the construction worker, volunteers, said he’s been pushing to bring more testing and resources to Fruitvale, particularly after outbreaks were detected at a Cardenas Market and a homeless encampment in the neighborhood. When those services aren’t made available quickly, the Latinx community is among the first to suffer.
“We’re up and coming in numbers and representation, but we always get left out,” he said.
Kimi Watkins-Tartt, Alameda County Public Health Director, said the county was “flying blind” early on without community testing. That made it hard to know how prevalent the virus was in neighborhoods like Fruitvale that became hot spots. “I’m not an epidemiologist but I’m pretty sure if we had been able to test sooner, we would’ve seen disease sooner in those locations and it would have informed our next steps afterward,” she said.
Getting people tested is still a struggle, said Jane Garcia, La Clinica’s CEO. Some worry a positive diagnosis could mean losing their jobs. And test kit shortages mean there are again limits on who gets tested.
“In many ways, we’re back to square one, where we were in March,” Garcia said. “We’re back to developing criteria and prioritizing who is going to get tested when we know a lot of our community members are not symptomatic but they are positive.”
Luna said he has felt some fatigue since his positive test, as well as a possible fever and chills. Six of his co-workers have now tested positive. Maybe someone caught it on BART or going out to buy water at their worksite, he said. He’s not upset at the diagnosis, and he’s still taking all the precautions, wearing his mask and now even a face shield when he leaves his room.
“It’s impossible to know where one gets it,” he said.
Luna isn’t too worried about not being able to work for a bit. He has his savings, plus he got his $1,200 federal assistance check early in the lockdown. He doesn’t plan to apply for unemployment — he doesn’t need it so he’d rather not take it, he said. Instead, he’s raring to go back out. He’ll get tested again in a few days and if he is negative, he’s planning to go back to work soon after and resume his weekend volunteer work, which he says keeps him active and energized.
“We have to be strong,” he said, “and keep moving forward.”
Reporter David DeBolt contributed to this report.