Mammoth’s 'invisible' community has been hit the hardest by the coronavirus. Why aren’t we better protecting our workforce?

The Latinx community makes up half of Mono County’s population, but accounts for 89 percent of the coronavirus cases. 

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Mammoth’s 'invisible' community has been hit the hardest by the coronavirus. Why aren’t we better protecting our workforce?

The Latinx community makes up half of Mono County’s population but accounts for 89 % of the coronavirus cases.

MAMMOTH LAKES, Calif. — It’s summertime in the Eastern Sierra. Tourism is in full swing and so is the pandemic. Cases of the coronavirus continue to rise in Mono County, mostly in Mammoth Lakes and mostly in the restaurant workforce. And like in much of the state, the Latinx community continues to be disproportionately impacted. 

In Mono County, 89% of the positive cases are Latinx, Mono County Public Health Officer Dr. Tom Boo told the Chamber of Commerce in a meeting of restaurant owners on Friday, July 24. According to the latest census, the Hispanic population in Mono County is 27%, but Latinx residents estimate that number is likely 50 percent or higher considering the population of people who are not counted.  

“There is community transmission and there is presumably some transmission in the workplace,” Dr. Boo told the Chamber members. “There are some things that we cannot change like overcrowded housing or people who feel they have to hide their illness because they can’t afford to miss work—but this is deadly serious.”

He told the restaurant owners that not everyone was getting the messaging or not taking it seriously enough, and suggested that people may listen to their employer.

Many of the Latinx community members interviewed for this story asked to be anonymous so that they could speak more freely. Most said they felt like their community was being blamed rather than helped. Some say they feel invisible. And most agreed that the response from the county and the business community has not been enough to protect the workforce. 

“The bigger, broader sword is that the virus is affecting the service industry as a whole,” Alonso Escobar, a Mammoth restaurant server, said.  “Who are our maids, our delivery drivers, our restaurant workers, and hotel staff in general? It is mostly people of the Latinx community.”

There is systemic pressure, too, Escobar explained.

“Whether it is due to their immigration status or not, there is just this notion or culture of work,” Escobar said “You have to work hard. You came to the U.S. to work hard and education is for your kids.”

A pandemic thrives on movement—the movement of people and movement of the virus, so it is unsurprising that tourism is a vector for disease transmission, and the tourism-facing workforce is the hardest hit.

In early April, Mono County had the highest per capita rate of COVID-19 infection in the state, which was consistent among counties nationwide with ski areas. Most of the original cases were restaurant workers, most were Latinx, Dr. Boo said in April.

Statewide, 55.6% of positive cases are Latinx yet the demographic comprises only 38% of California’s population. Last week Gov. Gavin Newsom announced $52 million in aid for the eight central valley counties where farmworkers have been hit particularly hard. There, 40-65% of the population is Hispanic, but health officials estimate the demographic accounts for up to 70 percent of cases. 

The California Department of Public Health also announced last week that in addition to racial and ethnic data, the state is now requiring providers to report gender identity and sexual orientation.

“Complete data is essential to addressing health inequities and better designing public health interventions that save lives,” State Public Health Officer Dr. Sonia Angell said in a statement. 

The racial disparity in Mono County seems to be the highest in the state, but the Public Health Department has avoided addressing health inequities, at least publicly. 

A few days after Dr. Boo told the Chamber of Commerce that 89% of cases are Latinx,  a county spokesperson would not confirm that statement, saying that the health department is “able to do some in-house demographic analysis, but are not confident enough in the quality and completeness of this data to consistently report it out to the public.”

In April a county spokesperson said, “we don’t want to make this about race” and later another spokesperson said that the health department and legal counsel would “not approve of releasing the data.” Then Mono County Counsel Stacy Simon said “the county did not have the data” because “it had not been tracking race.” 

Mono County Board of Supervisors Chair Stacy Corless said she was not privy to that information, but she suggested that releasing racial might create a backlash of COVID-related racial discrimination. Latinx community members say that is already happening. 

A recent study from the University of Southern California showed that discrimination by someone who perceives another to be infected with the coronavirus is targeted at racial minorities, even if they aren’t infected. Asian Americans were more than 2.5 times as likely as whites to experience COVID-related discrimination. Black and Latinx people were twice as likely.

“COVID is revealing horrible inequities we knew were already there,” Corless said. “People who have to work during all this are the ones being exposed to the virus and getting sick and also having the economic impact of not working.”

A local Latinx teacher who grew up in Mammoth says there have always been systemic inequities, but she thinks it’s only getting worse. 

 “It seems the Latinx community is more of an afterthought,” she said. “Not enough people are speaking up for this community and they cannot always speak for themselves.”

Kasandra Montes had only been on the job for two weeks in Mono County’s behavioral health department when the state declared a public health crisis. At the time she was mostly doing paperwork for the department as she had not yet become a case manager. She was tasked with leading Spanish-speaking and Latinx community outreach for the county’s joint information committee, which is part of the emergency response. 

The county started with translating all public health announcements and building Spanish web pages. They reached out to leaders in the Catholic church and other community organizations to focus on word-of-mouth outreach. Online public meetings with government officials were at first in only English, but are now also regularly in Spanish

Montes is also planning more outreach with pop-up information tents around town to speak with community members directly. 

As the surge in cases continues, county officials are also working to ramp up contact tracing efforts, and many Spanish-speaking county employees are being trained to assist the health department in those efforts. 

The public health department is also pressuring business owners to enforce pandemic operating guidelines and has re-instituted personal protective equipment distribution for essential workers. 

Even still, Latinx community members say the county’s efforts to protect the workforce are not enough. Many Spanish speakers are not online or have a child interpreting information for an entire household. And messaging does not always hold up in the workplace if the employer disregards safety precautions.

Dr. Boo points to housing as the main driver of the spread within the Latinx community. It is not uncommon for one family household to have members working in housekeeping and restaurants, each person working multiple jobs, and sometimes more than one family living in one unit to balance the cost of high rent and low wages. 

But Latinx community members say the disparity is more complex than that. 

“If housing is the problem then what is the solution? Saying that is another way of mitigating the problem to something else,” Alonso Escobar said. “This virus isn’t any more connected to housing than it is about race or the service industry or behavioral health. If we are not looking at the intersectionality of everything, it is not serving anyone’s purpose.”

Sofia Flores, the founder of Ballet Folklorico de las Flores, emigrated from Mexico with her seven siblings and parents when she was four years old. As a child, she learned how to fill out paperwork to become a permanent resident and eventually a United States citizen. 

“It is important to look at the different disparities we are facing right now,” Flores said. “The fear that immigrants face—they feel powerless.” 

Stay-at-home orders, reduced hours, and temporary closures have been particularly cruel for undocumented workers.  The food bank and rental assistance are helpful, but undocumented workers do not qualify for unemployment benefits, even though they often pay taxes, which also means they did not receive the additional federal CARES act $600 per week, or the one-time $1,200 economic impact payment. 

Most had not heard of the governor’s disaster relief assistance one-time $500 payment per adult for undocumented Californians. Of those that knew about the initiative, most said they were afraid to apply, or the application system was so overburdened that they never got through. 

Mono County businesses received a combined total of more than $24 million in federal paycheck protection program loans. The Town of Mammoth Lakes recently allocated $300,000 for small businesses and an additional $100,000 in rental assistance, but none of these programs will put cash directly in the hands of the workforce.

Latinx community members say the food bank and rental assistance were well-received and utilized, but “like everyone else, we still have bills to pay,” a restaurant manager said. 

Only one local business owner I talked to had paid Latinx employees who did not qualify for federal aid during the closure. Another had reduced rent for a commercial tenant. 

While many residents attending public meetings are pressuring health officials to close down tourism in response to recent surges, or at least roll back hotel and lodging occupancy, most of the Latinx laborers say they don’t want the same. 

“Why would we want that? That’s our money,” the restaurant manager said. In fact, some Latinx laborers say they feel like the people who want to shut down tourism don’t care about them, the workers who actually need the money. 

But what they do want is to be protected and many say that is not happening. Especially in housekeeping. The California Hotel and Lodging Association recommends that units be left vacant for 24 to 72 hours with ventilation prior to cleaning and occupancy by other guests, but Mammoth cleaning crews say they are being pressured to work faster, despite recommendations for their own health. 

Mono County’s business guidelines for operating during the pandemic say that if rooms are cleaned within the first 24 hours of guest checkout, housekeeping staff must be equipped with N-95 masks, disposable gloves, eye gear, and disposable attire. Many say they are not being provided with that level of personal protective equipment, nor what they consider proper cleaning supplies.

Nevertheless, they work. Many are afraid to speak up for fear of retaliation, losing their jobs, or worse.

“Immigrant workers have been silenced for so long, and now we are asking them to stand up for themselves? That is not easy to do,” Sofia Flores said. “We are not talking about how can we empower the workers—someone who thinks they can be replaced.” 

Like anything, some businesses are COVID-compliant while others are not. And enforcement, even if well-intentioned, isn’t changing much, according to the workforce. 

“We follow up on every complaint we receive,” Mammoth Lakes Fire Chief Frank Frievalt said at a recent community meeting. “But we just aren’t seeing it.”

And that’s just it, social inequities have persisted for generations of immigrants and even with the pandemic’s bright light, they still feel unseen. 

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