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‘Essential’ Laundromats Under Strain as City’s Wash Culture Shifts

A laundromat on Bedford Avenue in Bed-Stuy was closed during the coronavirus outbreak.
A Laundromat on Bedford Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant was closed during the coronavirus outbreak, March 30, 2020.
Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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Laundromats in New York have been deemed essential businesses by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, allowing them to stay open during the coronavirus pandemic.

But as the crisis drags on, and the concerns of workers and customers escalate, stores are closing or cutting hours — changing the landscape for doing laundry in a city short on at-home washing machines.

On the Lower East Side, Mimi Roberto closed Delancey Laundromat. She had stayed open through March 20, then reduced to just pick-up and drop-off service on Saturday and Sunday. She closed entirely by March 23.

“We see too much people, new faces,” Roberto said. “We don’t want to take a risk.”

Closures are happening all over the city, as seen on Yelp, Facebook pages and signs taped to storefront doors and gates. Those that remain open have amended operations.

Francisco Roa and his father run three Laundromats, one in Harlem and two in Yonkers. They’ve cut back hours at all three and made new rules for their 1,000-square-foot outlets: No more than eight people allowed in at once, no waiting inside and no folding.

They’ve also provided disinfectant wipes, masks and gloves, which customers are told to use.

“They seem a little bit more comfortable coming inside when they see that,” Roa said. “It just makes things run a little bit easier.”

‘We Are Getting Sick’

Not every Laundromat can afford to take such measures, said laundry worker advocates who spoke with THE CITY.

The Laundry Workers Center has heard from many employees who do not have cleaning supplies, according to co-Executive Director Rosanna Aran.

Many have seen their hours cut, and workers often don’t qualify for paid sick leave, which does not apply to workplaces with fewer than five employees, she said. In many cramped shops, it’s impossible to spread out and practice social distancing.

At Sam’s Cleaner in Fort Greene, hours have been reduced from six to three days a week.
At Sam’s Cleaner in Fort Greene, hours have been reduced from six to three days a week.
Rachel Holliday Smith/THE CITY

Meanwhile, complaints of worker illness have begun to roll in, Aran said, with employees describing COVID-19 symptoms, like persistent cough, fever and aches.

“Yesterday, one of our members called me and she said she is getting so sick,” Aran said. “The supervisor says, ‘Well, drink something or take a pill and you come back tomorrow to work.’ And she told me ‘I know that I’m not the only one, I know that there’s more workers that are sick.’”

Juana, an employee at an East Harlem Laundromat, is one of them.

“We are getting sick,” said Juana, who has worked in the industry for 15 years, speaking to THE CITY in Spanish through Aran.

“Maybe by the flu, maybe by coronavirus,” said Juana, who didn’t want her last name used to avoid problems with her employer.

And “el primero” — the first of the month — has arrived with rent bills and other expenses due, Juana said, laboring for breath over the phone.

“If we get sick, we have no source of income,” she said.

‘A Small Anxiety’

For those who need Laundromats — pretty much everybody without a washer and dryer at home — the closures and the crowding adds a cycle of anxiety to laundry day.

Katherine and Rully Rochmat’s local Laundromat — in Jackson Heights, near the overwhelmed Elmhurst Hospital in Queens — abruptly closed. The couple went there March 21, then noticed it had shuttered by the next day.

Like many New Yorkers, the couple doesn’t have washers and dryers in their building. Of all current rental listings in the city, only 45% have laundry in-unit or in the building, according to data compiled for THE CITY by Localize.city, a real estate data company.

Since the virus arrived, the Rochmats have been working from home and going on jogs each morning — producing must-wash clothing every day.

“When our regular place closed, I was like, ‘Oh my God, what if they’re all closing? What if they forgot to put them on the essential list? What are we going to do?’” said Katherine. “It was a small anxiety.”

Rully went to a new spot this week that had remained open with cut-back hours. He said many customers stood outside as their laundry spun.

“They were all wearing masks. It’s a different feeling,” he said. He wore a bandana over his face and tried to keep his distance as much as possible. “I didn’t even fold.”

On the Upper East Side, Wendy Brandes is looking for a new laundry routine, too.

The 52-year-old jewelry designer lives with her 77-year-old husband, whom she has forbidden from leaving the apartment. When her laundry piled up, she headed for the laundry room in their 22-story building at a time she thought no one would be there: 11 p.m.

“I’m trying to be hyper careful so I don’t bring anything back to him,” she said.

But when she walked in, another resident was already there — putting her on high alert.

“I got conscious of how airless it was in the basement room, and all the surfaces,” she said. “She was at a dryer and I was at the washing machine so we were kind of on a diagonal — the furthest away you could get from each other.”

Next time, she’s considering taking everything to the wash-and-fold place down the street. For now, they’re still open.

Do the Rite Thing

For Clean Rite Center, the massive laundry chain with more than 100 locations in New York, the coronavirus outbreak has put the company in an “unprecedented” situation, senior vice president Peter Stern told THE CITY.

“We’ve been through some pretty intense events, including 9/11, including Superstorm Sandy, the massive [2003] blackout,” he told THE CITY. “All that pales in comparison.”

The chain has rolled out contactless drop-off service, and has marked off six-foot zones for customers to stand in its locations. Some seating inside has been removed, as well, he said. Employees are given masks and gloves to complete the work.

A Clean Rite laundromat in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn stayed open to help people clean their clothes during the coronavirus outbreak.
A Clean Rite Laundromat in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, stayed open to help people clean their clothes during the coronavirus outbreak, March 31, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Stern is also starting a program that allows hospital staffers with valid identification to get their clothes cleaned for free by staff at the chain’s 1240 E. Tremont Avenue location in The Bronx.

He described it as a pilot program that is expected to roll out to all of Clean Rite Center’s branches.

“If we can take a load off by doing their laundry, we want to help them out in any way that we can,” he said.

Roa, with his laundromats in Harlem and Yonkers, is also offering free services: One wash a week for families in need. He’s made contact with those “truly in need and experiencing financial hardship” through the store’s Instagram page.

So far, he’s had one family and one medical worker take him up on the offer, and received donations from others who want to sponsor more free washes. He picks up and drops off the clothes for those he’s helped.

“I’ve been affected directly by corona, you know? I have family members who’ve lost their grandparents because of corona, I have a friend who has corona, so I can understand the importance of being able to stay home, being able to stay healthy,” he said.

“If I can make it easier for some families and take a load off their hands … that’s something that I would want to do.”


How To Do Your Laundry During an Outbreak

Many readers have asked THE CITY about the safest way to do laundry during the coronavirus crisis. Here’s the best information we have found on that question:

• The virus can probably live on clothing for hours, but a virologist told NPR it’s not something people should be too worried about. That’s because fabric is porous, and likely to trap and dry out the virus. Washing your clothes with soap and warm water will sanitize them. Stern, of Clean Rite, recommends washing your laundry bag, as well, and using water of at least 160 degrees.

• It should be relatively safe to go to a Laundromat, according to The New York Times — but wash your hands frequently, stay at least six feet from others and do not touch your face. Spend as little time inside as possible by doing only one load and then sorting and folding at home.

• For those who want to minimize all outside contact, washing clothes by hand at home is the best option.

If you are cleaning the clothes of someone who has or is suspected of having the virus, the Centers for Disease Control recommends:

• Wear disposable gloves and wash your hands with soap and water immediately after removing them.

• Do not shake dirty laundry, as that can disperse the virus into the air.

• Wash items on the warmest setting and dry them completely.

• Disinfect your clothes hampers.

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