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.”