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The Workers Breaking Lockdown Rules for Survival, Not ‘Freedom’

Right-wing anti-quarantine rallies may suck up media attention. But these Americans, unable to feed their families, are staging their own, desperate protest — and revealing our country’s greatest failures

There’re a lot of things I wish I had done before the pandemic, but right now I can’t help but think of the street vendors in L.A.’s “Little Guatemala,” a rush of humanity and commerce that comes alive when the sun dips down. 

It’s supposed to be a mosh pit of sizzling meat, fragrant masa, handbags, flowers and bodies. Lately, not so much, given that California is under quarantine like many other areas of the U.S.; all the foot traffic from MacArthur Park and the transit lines is dead. But a handful of vendors are still operating in this dense, diverse corner of the city. They face the threat of city fines and court misdemeanors every single day they come out. It is a quiet, nervous protest, fueled by dwindling funds and hungry family members to feed. For these vendors, many of them undocumented and unable to collect financial benefits, breaking quarantine rules is less symbolic stand and more anxious pragmatism. 

A much different energy filled the wealthy Southern California enclave of Huntington Beach last week, when a small congregation of COVID protesters took over a block while screeching about constitutional rights and the trampling of liberty. The conspiracy theories (“Impeach Bill Gates”; “Look into 5G”) and Trump fandom seemed to take center stage. It was reckless and belligerent — much like the reckless protests in Michigan (I didn’t realize AR-15s could cure COVID!), Massachusetts and elsewhere in America. So much of it seemed to hinge on dopey conservative hot takes and white nationalist nonsense under the guise of pandemic concerns. 

And no wonder Donald Trump reigned king at these events: The president practically seems to shrug at the notion that more people will definitely die because of a rush to reopen. “We have to get our country back, you know — people are dying the other way, too,” he told ABC News the other night. 

But it’s not just entitled salon owners, megachurch con artists and losers in XXL tactical vests. Those protests also featured working people arguing, in good faith, for something other than an uncertain, endless shutdown with no relief in sight. And it’s becoming clearer that every day and week that passes, it pushes more people to question whether the danger of getting sick might just be worth it.

It’s what Manuel, a fruit vendor along my (usual) commute, is struggling with as he weighs the risk of hustling to the threat of burning up his entire savings account. The 33-year-old has driven his white Tacoma pickup 30 minutes every day for two years, selling to people in the wealthier, residential enclave of Cheviot Hills and the schools there. But no school means scant foot traffic. And being undocumented means getting in trouble is a much bigger deal, he says. 

“I know a lot of people who are good customers, and I trust that they’re going to try and keep me healthy. But I don’t want to be out here breaking the rule. Maybe I should be working shorter shifts in more areas. I don’t know if that makes it more likely I get sick,” he tells me. “I can’t keep working here, but I can’t stop working, you know? I just don’t understand how everything can stay shut down for much longer.” 

Things really are as bad as they sound: Some 26 million Americans have lost their jobs, and the unemployment rate continues to climb, with few good signs the trend line will shift. The result is a “white-collar quarantine” for those with time for Netflix and noon cocktails, versus a much more broken world for lower-wage workers, who also happen to be disproportionately minorities. The circumstances for undocumented people under the pandemic reflect the worst-case scenario — they’ve either been laid off en masse from industries like construction and hospitality, or they’re shouldering the burden of being “essential workers” for customers who behave unsafely. 

And getting sick leaves people with even fewer options, which is how one woman decided she would have to sell homemade tamales for $3 a pop, whether quarantine rules allow it or not. “I’m trying to figure out how to find another job, but I’m not healthy — and there are no jobs,” she told the Washington Post. “At this point, I’m looking for anything just to support my kids.”

Meanwhile, my parents, who run a small Italian restaurant in Hawaii, are receiving more frequent calls from the employees they laid off so they could collect full unemployment. The calls often turn into a combination question-and-vent session about when they’ll get their jobs back, my dad says. The group consists mostly of working-class young people from the westside of Oahu, and they’re getting increasingly frustrated, even mirroring some of the things Trump has been declaring on cable news. “You know, things like ‘tyranny,’” my dad says with a dry chuckle. “I mean, it’s really hard for us to stay closed like this. I get more anxious every day, and I feel anxious for the kids who work at the restaurant. And I think the feeling of increasing desperation is what’s really stressful, every day.”

Everything seems to be getting hard for penny-pinching families: Taking care of kids is harder, everything takes more time and costs mount quickly. Something as simple as getting online to look for jobs is a major roadblock for the 30 percent of households who don’t have an internet connection. Martín, a 45-year-old man who lives in a tent next to my local supermarket, is pissed beyond belief when I ask him how the lockdown has affected his day-to-day life. “I was trying to apply to jobs, which is hard enough because I have a felony, and now I don’t even have a fuckin’ place to check an email,” he tells me, voice rising from behind a black paisley bandana. “I can’t even go to Starbucks over there to charge my phone.” 

A lack of coherent messaging from the federal government and our local leaders have left a lot of questions, and only a few vague answers, with which to build a personal survival plan. It shouldn’t be like this — where it’s easier to crack down on street vendors under the guise of safety than it is to pave a path toward economic survival for people in need. We can see the real America now with all its potholes: few protections for workers at the bottom, chaos in COVID testing and treatment, bullshit financial half-measures that serve as a mere Band-Aid on the cut jugular of collective America. 

If only the safety net had flexed under the weight of the challenge rather than ripped wide open. And naturally, the rest of us are left here wondering what we should do as lockdowns begin to shift. Is taking food from a street vendor akin to tossing them a lifeline, or is it putting them at risk of illness and death? What about the people who work at a department store — should we all boycott and stay out in the hopes the company will keep paying its workers, or will we simply be hastening the firing of vulnerable people? Unemployment, for those who are receiving it, will run out — and there’s little recourse once it’s gone. States themselves are struggling to fund so many people who need money. It all feels like a murky pit with a hell of a lot of traps. 

As the pandemic drags on, the idea that closure is unjust and unsustainable will catch on with more and more people. How the scenes play out may look as disparate as an obnoxious rally in a tony, white beach town and a quiet huddle of Latino street vendors waiting for city enforcement to leave. But the two threads of paranoia are winding together into a much more singular riddle: “How long can we remain like this?”