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Some Bodega Workers Get VIP Vaccines at Citi Field, But Most Have No Shot

Nasim Almuntaser works in his family-owned Brighton Beach bodega, Jan. 29, 2021.
Nasim Almuntaser works in his family-owned Brighton Beach bodega, Jan. 29, 2021.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Dozens of Queens bodega workers, many with roots in Yemen, are getting express-tracked to Citi Field’s new COVID-19 vaccination center opening Wednesday, after serving as pandemic lifelines for New Yorkers.

Yet the ongoing struggle for the vast majority of corner store employees to get shots highlights the challenges the largely immigrant workforce is confronting — facing doubts not only about the vaccine but also interacting with authorities.

The Yemeni American Merchants Association has helped arrange for set-aside Citi Field appointments for about 50 local bodega workers, according to Youssef Mubarez, a YAMA spokesperson. The group — representing 4,000 bodegas across the five boroughs and 15,000 workers — hopes to reach 100 in all.

The group appealed to the state Department of Agriculture and Markets, which licenses bodegas, in order to secure the set-aside, said Mubarez.

Nasim Almuntaser, 20, who works at one of his family’s bodegas in Brighton Beach, said he’d heard about the YAMA effort. Speaking with THE CITY before Citi Field opened for appointments, he wasn’t sure that his counterparts were tuned in.

“The city has done a poor job in educating bodega workers who have been working here a minimum of 12-, 13-hour shifts,” Almuntaser said. “They really don’t have time to watch what’s going on on the news.”

‘It’s Criminal’

Bodega workers have been eligible for vaccinations in New York since Jan. 11, lumped in group “1b” along with grocery workers who deal with the public.

But most are unaware they are eligible, bodega owners and employees say. And many staffing bodega counters and stocking shelves are undocumented or have Temporary Protected Status, prompting fears that booking their shots through a government site could put them in jeopardy.

City officials have repeatedly said there is no reason for concern.

Still, some workers believe that “you get vaccinated and you’ll be deported,” said Carmelia Walker, the owner of Orquidea Deli, near Brooklyn College.

“No one wants to face the government,” she added.

Significant language barriers don’t help: “The website is not in Arabic, so it’s hard for these guys to make appointments,” Mubarez said.

Many bodegas employ indigenous people from parts of Latin America, and formal education varies widely among them, said Jairo Guzmán, president of the Mexican Coalition, an advocacy group based in The Bronx. He said many don’t have a written language, so awareness campaigns must take that into account.

“Leaving these people out, it’s criminal,” Guzmán said. “We have to be able to reach these communities.”

Guzmán said he’s been trying to tell as many bodega workers as possible that they’re now eligible.

“I’ve spoken to many bodegueros,” he said, using a Spanish term for bodega workers. “None of them knew that they could go and get vaccinated.”

Eligibility Confusion

Mayor Bill de Blasio backed getting bodega workers vaccinated in January, when it wasn’t clear that they were eligible under the grocery worker category.

A spokesperson for the mayor said that the city has been doing outreach through groups like YAMA to ensure that bodega crews know that they can be vaccinated, and will deploy door-to-door canvassers to stores in the weeks ahead.

“The essential workers who led our city through the crisis must be vaccinated,” said the spokesperson, Avery Cohen. “That’s why the mayor successfully pushed for bodega workers to become eligible under 1B and continue to do all we can to make sure they can get vaccinated in New York City.”

The city and state’s vaccination eligibility pages now list bodega workers alongside their grocery counterparts, after initially omitting mention. A spokesperson for the state Department of Health confirmed to THE CITY that bodega workers are eligible under the grocery worker category.

De Blasio announced the opening of the Citi Field site on Monday, saying half of available slots would be set aside for Queens residents with rest going to restaurant and food delivery workers and taxi drivers.

Food service industry workers, another largely immigrant workforce, said they were having difficulty getting appointments for shots at the home of the Mets. Others reported problems navigating the state-run center at Yankee Stadium in The Bronx.

‘Trying to Survive’

City health authorities should boost efforts to reach undocumented immigrants through community groups, Guzmán said.

“There’s no reason for us to reinvent the wheel,” he said. “They’re already infrastructures in place that could be used to communicate and reach the communities that are so disengaged, are so afraid to come out.”

Some bodega owners speaking with THE CITY were struck by the contrast between a heavy government COVID-19-related enforcement presence on their businesses and what they called a vacuum of vaccine outreach.

Walker said that city officials have always been quick to stop by and inspect her bodega during the pandemic.

She said they would come when her neighborhood was classified as a red zone because of the level of COVID cases in the area. She said that the city should be coming to them to ensure that they get vaccinated.

“The city do have money to send people to the store and say, ‘You know what? Are you ready? We have a place and you can get vaccinated tomorrow,” Walker said.

She said that she and her staff would be happy to get vaccinated tomorrow if they could.

“We’ve been open, trying to survive,” Walker said, “exposing ourselves on a daily basis to help the neighborhood because, at the end of the day, we got to serve them.”

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