Phillip Grant didn’t anticipate that a deadly virus would shut down New York City
when he started the job of general manager at the Hunts Point Produce Market 10 months ago.
In March, when concern over COVID-19 compelled much of the tri-state area to close indefinitely, many doing business at the Bronx facility worried about its survival.
Would businesses at the massive complex — which contains a produce market, a fish market and a meat market — be forced to close? How many of those employed would get sick? Or laid off?
Three months later, as the region begins to reopen, much of the worst has been averted, Grant told THE CITY. No employee has been laid off or furloughed, according to Grant and city officials, even as restaurants were limited to take-out business for months.
As the city locked down, Grant said, leadership at the market quickly rolled out a disaster preparedness plan, gaming out almost every frightening possibility.
“We went down to the worst-case scenario: What if all of, or a good chunk of our 125 workers, had the virus?” said Grant, who previously oversaw construction projects at the city Economic Development Corp., which owns the facility. “What do we do? Management would then go out and man the gates.”
The team’s responsibility is a big one, he noted. Some 4.5 billion pounds of food come through the distribution center annually. The half that does not get sold in New York City ends up elsewhere in the region, according to the EDC.
And about half of the customers at the market are independent restaurants and cafes, according to EDC, while supermarkets and bodegas make up around 40% of the market’s shoppers.
Anti-Virus Game Plan
To stem the spread of the virus, market managers took the preventive steps most in other industries did, like stocking sanitizer and soap, as well as staggering schedules and arranging enhanced cleanings of workspace.
Those who could do their jobs remotely did, Grant said. Those who had to come in to work received masks and gloves at the entrance to the complex, employees said.
“Every single day we sanitized everything — twice a day sometimes,” said Victor Davila, 28, who works in maintenance at the market.
Market management also regularly collected data on the spread of the illness among the more than 1,860 workers at the site, through surveys of the 150-plus merchants at the cooperative.
Members were asked how many confirmed cases of COVID-19 they had on staff, how many of those who were confirmed sick had returned to work, how many had been sent home — or were out for other reasons, like taking care of a family member.
The data was periodically published online, along with Centers for Disease Control guidelines on COVID-19 and the list of actions taken by management for worker safety.
According to the most current data from produce market management, 84 employees there were tested positive for the virus as of June 1. Of these, 73 had returned to work.
As the city enters Phase 2 of its reopening and looks beyond, management at the produce market is monitoring what its city and state partners are doing, Grant said.
“We continue to follow the guidelines issued by the state and city,” he added.
On June 17, city and industry leaders for truckers, market employees and other food supply workers held an appreciation event for employees near the produce market’s gates.
“If they were not willing to come to work during this pandemic, we would not be eating,” Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia, who was appointed city food supply czar by the mayor for the coronavirus pandemic, said at the event.
When it comes to the possibility of a second wave of COVID-19, Garcia said, “We are prepared.”
During the morning celebration, employees entering the complex got free food, thanks to the Trucking Association of New York. Officials say 15,000 trucks come through the area each day.
“If the trucks stop moving, within a day there would be no fruit,” said Barry Panicola, vice chairman of the association.
Within a week, Panicola added, the city would run out of things like bread and medicine, he added.
“Everyone put their life in jeopardy as essential workers,” he added.
Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and Councilmember Rafael Salamanca (D-The Bronx) also addressed the workers praising them, while noting ongoing food insecurity for area residents.
“I submit to you this: If it were not for the work that you’ve been doing and continue to do, we would have had chaos,” Diaz said.
For Salamanca, the concern for workers was very personal.
“For those of you that dont know, my dad worked here in the produce market for 18 years,” noted the Council member, whose father died in early April after contracting coronavirus.
“Essential workers — I have your back here in Hunts Point.”