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Hispanic businesses doing their part to halt coronavirus spread, keep people safe

Freddie Perales, the assistant manager at Mercado Guadalajara in Toppenish, said his store implemented the strictest possible measures when the coronavirus pandemic hit.

All staff have to wear gloves and masks, and wash or sanitize their hands frequently. In the early weeks of the pandemic, staff sprayed customers’ hands with sanitizer as they entered the store until Perales could obtain sanitizer pumps.

As case counts continued to climb, the market made masks mandatory for everyone — vendors, employees and customers alike — to minimize the spread.

“We heard that a virus will get worse before it gets better,” Perales said. “We told everyone that we had to do this 100%.”

Yakima County remains in Phase 1 of the state’s reopening plan, which only allows essential stores such as groceries to allow walk-in customers. Restaurants still need to rely on takeout or delivery services to reach customers. Starting this week, everyone will be required to wear masks when out in public.

Yakima County has the highest rate of COVID-19 cases per capita in the state. The virus has hit hard here, with more than 6,000 cases since mid-March. Hispanic individuals make up a little more than half of the cases.

Leaders of local nonprofits serving Spanish-speaking clients said there are a number of reasons that could account for case counts being so high in Hispanic populations. It’s a matter of the high percentage of essential workers who are Hispanic, they said.

But it’s also a matter of equity, and of possibly unequal access to resources and information about the virus, they said.

High Hispanic case counts

The Yakima Health District updates coronavirus race and ethnicity data weekly. As of Monday, 52% percent of the cases were people who identified as Hispanic or Latino. They make up 49% of the population. Caucasians made up 20% of the cases and 43% of the population. Native Americans made up 4% of cases and 6.5% of the population.

Data is classified as missing for about 18% of the total cases, meaning a person may not have disclosed race or ethnicity information, or the hospital or clinic might not have collected that information or reported it to the health district.

Lilián Bravo, spokeswoman for the health district, said one preliminary theory about the high number of Hispanic cases is that much of Yakima County’s essential workforce is Hispanic, particularly within agriculture.

Bravo said the district’s data also shows that the younger an individual is who has a confirmed case of COVID-19, the more likely that person is to be Hispanic.

Bravo said the district has fielded some questions about whether case numbers are higher for Hispanic people because of larger household sizes, but hasn’t found evidence to back that up. She said the district’s data shows the vast majority of cases impacting the Hispanic population come from different households, rather than concentrated numbers of cases within individual households.

Nuestra Casa in Sunnyside and La Casa Hogar in Yakima are nonprofits that provide education and citizenship support for immigrant families.

Caty Padilla, the executive director of Nuestra Casa, said one challenge for some of the nonprofit’s clients has been limiting contact at workplaces that “don’t have the best conditions,” namely fruit packing plants and warehouses throughout the Yakima Valley, where workers were on strike until recently demanding improved safety and social distancing measures.

Laura Armstrong, executive director of La Casa Hogar, also noted that many of the Valley’s agricultural workers, who are considered essential and have still been reporting to work, are Hispanic.

“There are layers and layers there. It’s about equity, and who gets to work from home,” she said. “In Yakima, who does not get to work from home? Farmworkers. Warehouse workers. Most of the workers holding those jobs are Hispanic, so it’s not surprising that this (the virus) will impact communities of color.”

Equitable access

A bright yellow sign posted outside of Mercado Guadalajara shows a sketch of a person wearing a mask and the announcement “Face mask or face covering must be worn to enter” in English and Spanish.

Perales said staff fielded some concern the first day of the requirement but added that most customers have grown accustomed to — and are grateful for — the store’s mask policy.

“The very first day, it was hard, but the second day it got better,” Perales said. “Now customers who come to our door turn around by themselves and go back to their cars for their masks.”

Perales said many of the store’s older shoppers particularly appreciate being able to make their purchases around others who are wearing face coverings and practicing social distancing.

Masks became more widely available recently, after grocery stores, businesses, community groups and cities started distributing thousands of them through a partnership with the health district and the Emergency Operations Center. La Casa Hogar and Nuestra Casa have helped distribute masks to Hispanic families, who have been grateful, as well as worked to educate families, Padilla said.

“When we distribute the masks, we tell them, ‘We are giving you a mask, but this is not your ticket to do whatever you want,’” she said. “We remind them to continue to do only essential tasks.”

Armstrong said her clients aren’t pushing back against the directive to wear masks.

“This is a question about access,” she said. “We’re not seeing people not believing the virus is real, or not wanting to wear masks. We’re seeing more concern for their children, and what they can do to keep their families safe.”

Bravo said the health district has provided masks to Fiesta Foods and also has made the effort to go to smaller Hispanic-owned businesses, including bakeries, tortillerias, carnicerias, laundromats, grocery stores and mini-marts. The district also has partnered with the Yakima County Development Association and Central Washington Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to reach out to businesses to distribute masks, she said.

Armstrong said another barrier, beyond access to the physical masks, could be whether language used in COVID-19 messaging is understandable to all members of the Hispanic community, some of whom may have had a limited formal education.

“People are talking about social distancing, but what does that mean?” Armstrong said. “Even saying seis pies (6 feet) can be confusing for people who may not have learned ‘feet’ as a unit of measurement.”

Bravo said the health district is educating the Hispanic community about the virus and necessary precautions through a “Stop the Spread” campaign, in collaboration with the Yakima Valley Community Foundation.

The campaign has included information in Spanish on the district’s website, social media, flyers, billboards, radio public service announcements, and appearances on Spanish radio and TV.

The health district also has started working with Hispanic church leaders as they resume holding services outdoors and other in-person outreach, with efforts focused in the Lower Valley where rates of confirmed cases are higher. Community health specialists have started visiting many of the small Hispanic-run businesses, including coffee shops, restaurants, gas stations and panaderias, and can provide flyers with information in Spanish about wearing face masks, social distancing, operating at limited capacity and having one shopper per family, upon request of the business.

Small business efforts to educate

Padilla said there is a high level of awareness of COVID-19 in her clients’ families because most know someone who has contracted the virus.

Padilla noted that many of the small, Hispanic-run businesses in Toppenish — including La Tienda Tapatia and Mercado Guadalajara — implemented safety and social distancing precautions even before the health district’s directives.

“Our small businesses are risking their bottom lines for the safety of our community,” she said. “It’s interesting that some of these smaller businesses are really strictly enforcing the recommendations, whereas some of the larger, corporate stores are not.”

Lucy Caballero of Antojitos Mexicanos at 3512 Summitview Avenue in Yakima said staff implemented safety precautions when confirmed cases started in Yakima County. All employees have to wear masks and change gloves frequently. The restaurant also is enforcing social distancing guidelines for the safety of customers and staff, she said.

“People do want to come in and sit down or eat on the patio, and we have had to tell them no,” she said. “It was hard at first, but it’s important because we don’t want people to get sick and so we can reopen.”

Caballero said the restaurant is grateful for its regulars, who have kept the business afloat during the turbulent times.

“It’s important for us to get back to business, but we want to do it safely,” she said.

Perales in Toppenish said his store also is committed to enforcing the recommendations for a safe restart. But he added it would be easier if all businesses were required to follow the same strict rules.

“I wish every store would do this, including the bigger stores. I don’t see why they wouldn’t,” he said. “But we’re trying to do our best. And for a small store, we are doing OK.”

Latino agricultural workforce a focus of county officials’ campaign to slow virus spread

For Sean Gilbert, the April 21 arrival of a face mask shipment from China marked a turning point in the battle to control COVID-19 at his family’s fruit warehouse. Once the masks were distributed — and wearing them was made mandatory — the number of new cases dropped sharply.

The current tally is 26 among the more than 300 processing workers. That’s just two higher than a month ago.

“The masks were a turning point,” Gilbert said. “I believe unequivocally that masks work.”

State COVID-19 agricultural rules, in place since June 3, require all employees, except those who labor alone, to wear masks, including the crews thinning apples and now picking cherries in Central Washington’s orchards.

Still, the novel coronavirus has continued to rage through the ranks of Yakima’s agricultural workers and the broader county population in a pandemic that health district officials believe to be increasingly driven by what happens outside of the workplace, where masks are often not worn in stores and elsewhere, and the spiking of case counts after holiday weekend gatherings.

The risks of such conduct prompted Gov. Jay Inslee to announce Saturday he will soon order Yakima County residents to wear face coverings in public spaces, a first-of-a-kind move as state and local governments try to gain control of a runaway spread that poses a wider threat to Washington’s efforts to tamp down the coronavirus.

“As goes Yakima, so goes the rest off the state,” said Inslee, who called the situation “desperate.”

Yakima’s soaring positive case count, 6,476 as of Sunday, improbably is very close to the 6,937 count for the entire state of Oregon, which has more than 16 times the county’s population.

The virus has created a crisis in county hospitals, which face critical staffing shortages as the count of patients with COVID-19 last week reached all-time highs.

At Virginia Mason Memorial in Yakima, where staffing problems have been aggravated by workers ill or quarantining from COVID-19, the hospital can’t handle more admissions, and over two days last week arranged for 22 COVID and other patients to be taken to facilities in Western Washington.

A hospital forecast projects the worst is yet to come. Cases are expected to climb sharply until mid-July, when they are anticipated to be roughly double the current level.

COVID-19 has ripped through all races and all segments of the county population. But the largely Latino agricultural workforce has been a focus of county officials’ campaign to slow the spread.

A still incomplete tally of county cases involving food processing and agricultural workers tops 1,000, more than double the number on May 21. Those who tested positive worked for some 230 employers in a wide swath of the industry ranging from a mushroom farm to vineyards, dairies, orchards and fruit warehouses, according to county health district tracing.

A Virginia Mason Memorial doctor noted that the seriously ill patients include increasing numbers of farm and food processing workers.

Lilian Bravo, of the Yakima County Health District, said the county does not determine whether workers were exposed to the virus at work or elsewhere. Still, she said, “We definitely think the majority is community spread.”

“A couple of weekends ago, I admitted four patients, and they were all aged 30 to 50 and worked in agriculture,” said Dr. Tanny Davenport, a hospital physician. “They have no business being in the hospital but are here because the virus caused a whole bunch of serious respiratory problems.”

The stark trajectory of the coronavirus put new scrutiny on the policies surrounding the use of masks outside the workplace, where a May 22-23 survey of 50 county retail sites showed 65% of the people shopped without them.

Since then, a Yakima County directive was put in place, which tells — but does not order — people to wear masks in public places. Last week, plenty of people were going without masks while shopping in Safeway and the Walmart Supercenter in Sunnyside, one of the hottest of county hot spots for the coronavirus.

In Yakima, a Dollar Tree had a sign on the door saying no entry without these coverings, but it was routinely ignored and even a cashier was bare-faced.

Nearby, at the tiny La Milpa Market — a grocery and check-cashing store — the owners took a tougher stance. Luz Gutierrez and Ramon Valdez not only posted a sign on the door, but repeatedly told people to leave the store until they went back to their cars to grab a mask.

A few customers have been irate. But most quickly comply.

“You’ve got to be serious about this,” Gutierrez said. “I tell them, ‘I care about you, and I want you to care about me.’”

The case for wearing masks has been buttressed by recent research that indicates the virus can spread as infected people exhale tiny aerosol particles that can travel far beyond 6 feet. That creates risks for workers who labor long hours in processing plants, but also for people as they mingle for shorter periods of time in confined spaces.

“You breathe it deeply into your lungs, and this is the stuff that you should be worried about,” said Kim Prather, an atmospheric chemist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego.

Prather was the lead author of a Science magazine article last month stating that a “large proportion” of coronavirus disease spread appears to be through the aerosol transmissions, and recommended properly fitted masks to reduce the risks.

Inslee, in making his Saturday announcement, said “science has become very clear about the efficacy of masks.”

In fields, warehouses

Though the governor’s order puts a spotlight on improving the safety of public spaces, state and county officials still must grapple with the ongoing risks of workers acquiring COVID-19 on the job.

This spring at the fruit processing plants, masks were in short supply. And county officials tracked dozens of cases to these employers.

In May, workers at more than a half dozen of these plants went out on strike, at least briefly, to press for better safety conditions and hazard pay.

Inslee cited those strikers in announcing the agricultural workplace protections that included masking requirements.

Since then, at several of the processing operations that suffered significant outbreaks, such as Gilbert Orchards, case counts appear to have stabilized, according to information released by the health district.

But at other warehouses, cases continue to climb.

At Jack Frost Fruit, a Yakima-based warehouse, the number of employees who have tested positive jumped from six as of May 21 to 31 as of June 15.

“It has been a rapidly changing situation,” said Patrick Martinez, a company compliance officer who said cases rose once the strike was over even as protections were in place. Martinez said Jack Frost this week will offer testing to all employees to try to better understand the scope of infections.

County investigators also are tracking a recent outbreak at a labor camp of temporary workers operated by Green Acres Farms, where 35 employees tested positive earlier this month. These camps lodge lots of people, and have been a point of concern for farm labor advocates who lobbied the state to come up with Inslee’s new set of COVID-19 rules for agriculture.

Erik Nicholson, national vice president of the United Farm Workers, said grower compliance with the rules is spotty. Nicholson visited Finley Cherries in Benton County. There, Nicholson said, he saw several hundred workers picking mostly without masks, and found filthy toilets.

Nicholson phoned in a complaint to the state Department of Labor and Industries, which triggered a June 12 inspection of the orchard business.

A Finley spokesman said the company provides masks for workers and frequently cleans the toilets. He also said the state inspection found no significant problems.

Tim Church, a state Labor and Industries spokesman, said the inquiry was not yet complete, so he could not comment on the findings.

Anger and grief

In the weeks ahead, one of the biggest challenges in slowing the pandemic will be changing attitudes.

Some residents are deeply skeptical about the threat posed by the coronavirus.

Jason White, a Yakima City Council member who has asserted that healthy immune systems fortified by vitamins can safeguard people from the virus, has helped organize public events where people unhappy with store closures and other restrictions gather — often without masks — to protest. He was at it again last week with a Facebook post promoting a Saturday gathering for what he called “Liberty Zone Live.”

In the county’s Latino community, which constitutes nearly half the population, many recognize the threat posed by the coronavirus. With a mixture of anger and grief, fruit packing workers staged a June 3 demonstration in front of the state Department of Labor and Industries to honor a colleague, David Cruz, who died of complications of COVID-19.

But Joseph Hernandez, who installs automotive sound systems in Sunnyside, said too many of his friends don’t take the virus seriously. They continue to get together for carne asada meals and music.

One acquaintance, even after he tested positive for COVID-19, kept putting up social media posts about parties, according to Hernandez.

“A lot of friends, on the weekends still do whatever they want,” Hernandez said. “They are not scared of it.”

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Did TikTok teens, K-Pop fans punk Trump's comeback rally?

OAKLAND, Calif. — Did teens, TikTok users and fans of Korean pop music troll the president of the United States?

For more than a week before Donald Trump’s first campaign rally in three months on Saturday in Tulsa, Okla., these tech-savvy groups opposing the president mobilized to reserve tickets for an event they had no intention of attending. While it’s unlikely they were responsible for the low turnout, their antics may have inflated the campaign’s expectations for attendance numbers that led to Saturday’s disappointing show.

“My 16 year old daughter and her friends in Park City Utah have hundreds of tickets. You have been rolled by America’s teens,” veteran Republican campaign strategist Steve Schmidt tweeted Saturday. The tweet garnered more than 100,000 likes and many responses from people who say they or their kids did the same.

Reached by telephone Sunday, Schmidt called the rally an “unmitigated disaster” — days after Trump campaign chairman Brad Parscale tweeted that more than a million people requested tickets for the rally through Trump’s campaign website.

Andrew Bates, a spokesperson for Trump’s Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, said the turnout was a sign of weakening voter support. “Donald Trump has abdicated leadership and it is no surprise that his supporters have responwded by abandoning him,” he said.

In a statement, the Trump campaign blamed the “fake news media” for “warning people away from the rally” over COVID-19 and protests against racial injustice around the country.

“Leftists and online trolls doing a victory lap, thinking they somehow impacted rally attendance, don’t know what they’re talking about or how our rallies work,” Parscale wrote. “Reporters who wrote gleefully about TikTok and K-Pop fans — without contacting the campaign for comment — behaved unprofessionally and were willing dupes to the charade.”

At midday Sunday, it was possible to sign up to stream a recap of the Tulsa event later in the day through Trump’s website. It requested a name, email address and phone number. There was no age verification in the signup process, though the site required a PIN to verify phone numbers.

Inside the 19,000-seat BOK Center in Tulsa, where Trump thundered that “the silent majority is stronger than ever before,” numerous seats were empty. Tulsa Fire Department spokesperson Andy Little said the city fire marshal’s office reported a crowd of just less than 6,200 in the arena.

City officials had expected a crowd of 100,000 people or more in downtown Tulsa, but that never materialized. That said, the rally, which was broadcast on cable, also targeted voters in battleground states such as Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Florida.

Social media users who have followed recent events might not be surprised by the way young people (and some older folks) mobilized to troll the president. They did it not just on TikTok but also on Twitter, Instagram and even Facebook. K-Pop fans — who have a massive, coordinated online community and a cutting sense of humor — have become an unexpected ally to American Black Lives Matter protesters.

In recent weeks, they’ve been repurposing their usual platforms and hashtags from boosting their favorite stars to backing the Black Lives Matter movement. They flooded right-wing hashtags such as “white lives matter” and police apps with short video clips and memes of their K-pop stars. Many of the early social media messages urging people to sign up for tickets brought up the fact that the rally had originally been scheduled for Friday, June 19, which is Juneteenth, a day commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. Tulsa, the location for the rally, was the scene in 1921 of one of the most severe white-on-Black attacks in American history.

Schmidt said he was not surprised. Today’s teens, after all, grew up with phones and have “absolutely” mastered them, he said. They are also the first generation to have remote Zoom classes and have a “subversive sense of humor,” having come of age in a world of online trolls and memes, Schmidt said. Most of all, he said, “they are aware of what is happening around them.”

“Like salmon in the river, they participate politically through the methods and means of their lives,” Schmidt added.

That said, the original idea for the mass ticket troll may have come not from a teen but from an Iowa grandmother. The politics site Iowa Starting Line found that a TikTok video posted June 11 by Mary Jo Laupp, a 51-year-old grandma from Fort Dodge, Iowa, suggesting that people book free tickets to “make sure there are empty seats.” Laupp’s video, which also tells viewers how to stop receiving texts from the Trump campaign after they provide their phone number (simply text “STOP”), has had more than 700,000 likes. It was also possible to sign up for the rally using a fake or temporary phone number from Google Voice, for instance.

As Parscale himself pointed out in a June 14 tweet, though, the ticket signups were not simply about getting bodies to the rally. He called it the “Biggest data haul and rally signup of all time by 10x” — meaning the hundreds of thousands of emails and phone numbers the campaign now has in its possession to use for microtargeting advertisements and to reach potential voters.

Sure, it’s possible that many of the emails are fake and that the ticket holders have no intention of voting for Trump in November. But while it’s possible that this “bad data” might prove useless — or even hurt the Trump campaign in some way — experts say there is one clear beneficiary in the end, and that is Facebook. That’s due to the complex, murky ways in which Trump’s political advertising machine is tied up with the social media giant. Facebook wants data on people, and whether that is “good” or “bad,” it will be used to train its systems.

“No matter who signs up or if they go to a rally, Trump gets data to train retargeting on Facebook. FB’s system will use that data in ways that have nothing to do with Trump,” tweeted Georgia Tech communications professor Ian Bogost. “Might these ‘fake’ signups mess up the Trump team’s targeting data? Maybe it could, to some extent. But the entire system is so vast and incomprehensible, we’ll never really know.”

Yakima County close to 6,500 COVID-19 cases; recoveries increase by more than 300

Yakima County has close to 6,500 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of Sunday, according to the latest numbers from the Yakima Health District.

Yakima County had 6,476 confirmed cases as of Sunday evening, an increase of 117 from a day earlier. There are 56 COVID-19 patients hospitalized in Yakima County, with 11 on ventilators.

The county also reported six new deaths Sunday for a total of 124. Out of that number, 117 had other health issues.

However, the county also reported a sizable increase in the number of COVID-19 patients who have recovered, which is defined as anyone who has gone 28 or more days since a positive test and is not hospitalized or deceased. On Sunday, 2,997 patients were listed as recovered, an increase of more than 300 from a day earlier.

In comparison, the increase in recovered COVID-19 cases between June 13 and Saturday, a one-week period, was 475.

— Mai Hoang