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Alex Guillén, 42, poses for a portrait in front of his stand in Corona Plaza.
Alex Guillén began to sell masks in Corona Plaza after he lost his restaurant job last spring.
Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

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Corona, Queens, Still Staggers to Recover From Corona, the Virus

While much of New York City springs into hopeful reopening buoyed by widespread vaccination, survivors at the pandemic’s epicenter contend with ongoing economic and emotional traumas. Just ask the vendors in Corona Plaza.

The New York City where the streets buzz with people enjoying freedoms newly found after the COVID vaccine is worlds away from the exhausted streets of Corona, Queens, a year after the coronavirus first devastated the neighborhood.

Corona’s streets are crowded, too — but largely with vendors selling what they can to survive, music blaring to compete with the roar of No. 7 trains passing overhead along Roosevelt Avenue.

Fewer people are vaccinated here than almost anywhere else in the city — a pattern driven not by reluctance, say neighborhood health providers, but the inability of many people to break from the grind to get the shots.

Below the 103 Street-Corona Plaza station, dozens of vendors gather daily to sell tacos, grilled meats, elotes, masks, artisanal jewelry, fruits and vegetables along the sidewalk. At the center of the plaza, a COVID testing van promises quick results.

The plaza didn’t always look like this, locals say.

Pre-pandemic, about a dozen or so vendors plied food and wares and around Corona Plaza, said Carina Kaufman-Gutierez, the deputy director of the advocacy group the Street Vendor Project. That number has ballooned to nearly 90 vendors who rotate in and out of the area, many of them newcomers who lost their jobs because of the pandemic and are working without a highly coveted and difficult to obtain permit.

Among them: Liliana Sánchez, who lost her job last spring when the Upper West Side restaurant where she worked closed. The 35-year-old began selling freshly squeezed orange juice starting at dawn in Corona Plaza last May, with her 11- and 13-year old children in tow.

“When this neighborhood had the most infections we didn’t leave the house for almost two months,” Sánchez told THE CITY in Spanish. “But then our savings ran out. It’s difficult to remember that — our savings were finished.”

“We didn’t have food in our house,” she added as tears welled in her eyes, fogging her glasses. “We had to stand on lines for hours and hours at food pantries. We waited on line at a church pantry that was 15 blocks long. Not everyone was going to get food and we would get whatever we could because there wasn’t any other recourse— there is no work.”

“I had to do it for my kids. I would go looking for food but there wasn’t enough.”

Liliana Sánchez, 33, poses for a portrait in Corona Plaza close to where she sells fresh orange juice most mornings, weather permitting.
Orange juice seller Liliana Sánchez in Corona Plaza.
Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

‘A Question of Access’

Many in the working-class neighborhood haven’t been eligible for federal stimulus payments or unemployment benefits because of their immigration status, leaving them with little recourse but to scrounge income however they can. It will take months before a new state “excluded workers” fund begins distributing payments.

Prior to the pandemic, nearly half of working people in Corona were employed in food service, construction, clearing or transportation, according to Census data — jobs largely deemed essential by the state, meaning workers could remain on duty during the lockdown.

Within weeks of the first case being identified in New York City on March 1, Corona became the center of the virus’ outbreak. One out of every nine people in the neighborhood was diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the city’s health department. Some 521 residents in the 11368 ZIP code have died, the most of any location in the five boroughs.

While the number of new infections has abated in recent months, the COVID-19 case rate and death rate in Corona remain higher than the borough and city’s, city health data shows.

And despite the neighborhood’s distinction as ground zero for the outbreak last year, vaccination rates lag compared to the surrounding neighborhoods in central Queens.

As of Wednesday, just 19% of Corona’s population was fully vaccinated and 34% of residents had received at least one dose, according to city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene stats. Meanwhile in neighboring Elmhurst, also hit hard by COVID-19, 36% of all residents are fully vaccinated and 57% have received at least one dose.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio have repeatedly attributed low vaccination rates in some communities to people’s reluctance to seek the shots. But local health care providers, elected officials and residents say access to the vaccine is the biggest factor.

“It’s not a question of hesitancy, it’s a question of access and that the resources are correctly placed,” said Dr. Mathew Kusher, the medical director at Plaza del Sol Family Health Center, the largest health care provider in Corona.

Elusive Vaccines

On the surface, it might seem like Corona residents can readily get shots. An early mass-vaccination site opened at nearby Citi Field, which like all city- and state-run sites is open without need for an appointment as of this week. The 11368 ZIP code has three other sites listed in the city vaccine finder.

But Citi Field sits forbiddingly on the other side of the Grand Central Parkway from Corona.

Even for those who know about the new no-appointment policy, many area residents don’t have jobs that allow them to take time off to deal with possible side effects from the vaccine — despite a state law allotting four hours leave, notes local state Sen. Jessica Ramos (D-Queens).

Corona’s status as epicenter of the epicenter “didn’t translate in any way into priority to the Cuomo administration, especially as it pertains to vaccines,” Ramos said. The two state-run vaccine sites in the borough are located at the Aqueduct Racetrack and York College, each at least a 40-minute ride on public transit.

Meanwhile, the three other Corona vaccine sites are all pharmacies, where shots remain available by appointment only. Corona residents are more likely to prioritize going to work than getting vaccinated, said local Assemblymember Catalina Cruz (D-Queens).

“There are pockets in the area that are transportation deserts. Appointments are randomly assigned and then you have to figure out how to get there. None of that was taken into account,” Cruz said.

There simply “are not enough vaccination sites” in the neighborhood, Cruz added.

A spokesperson for the state Department of Health did not respond to questions about whether additional vaccination sites would open in the area. According to Cruz, the state is planning another pop-up vaccination site Thursday at the Iglesia Centro Cristiano Juda on Roosevelt Avenue.

“We’re moving heaven and earth to get as many COVID-19 shots into arms as quickly and equitably as possible, using all means necessary, including launching programs like direct partnerships with houses of worship and the continuation of targeted #VaccinateNY PSA’s to break down barriers to access and empower all New Yorkers to confidently make the decision to get vaccinated,” Jonah Bruno, the health department spokesperson, said in a statement Monday.

“As of today, more than 45.7% of the Queens population is at least partially vaccinated, which is consistent with statewide averages,” he added.

City Hall, meanwhile, is planning to deploy a vaccination bus to Corona Plaza from May 2 through May 5, and is expected to launch more vaccination sites in the area, said Avery Cohen, a mayoral spokesperson.

‘Breath of Life’

Some vendors in Corona found success in getting vaccinated through pop-up sites hosted by local churches, including one at the Aliento de Vida church situated in the center of Corona Plaza that Cruz and other local Assembly members requested via the governor’s office.

In the days before the pop-up vaccination site opened at the church — whose name means “Breath of Life” — canvassers walked around the neighborhood signing people up. Those who responded included Sánchez, who is now fully vaccinated.

The Walgreens at 10314 Roosevelt Ave currently serves as a vaccination site.
A church that hosted a pop-up vaccination site shares a building with a shots-by-appointment-only Walgreens on Corona Plaza.
Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Alex Guillén, 42, a Flushing resident who began selling masks in Corona Plaza when he lost his restaurant job last spring, wasn’t able to get vaccinated at Aliento de Vida because he didn’t live in the 11368 zip code. But the canvassers, who spoke Spanish, were able to make him an appointment at Citi Field.

“It’s important to get vaccinated because we’re exposed to more people out here,” Guillén told THE CITY in Spanish. “You have to trust God. But there have also been many studies to make sure it’s safe. If there wasn’t a vaccine we’d all be asking, ‘When is this going to be over?’”

Gabriela Almaraz, a 48-year-old Corona resident who sells birria tacos along Roosevelt Avenue, was initially hesitant to get vaccinated. But prospective buyers kept asking her if she had gotten the shot, so it became necessary to keep her business going, she said.

Getting clergy involved in vaccination efforts is helping sway some who are still on the fence, said Councilmember Francisco Moya (D-Queens).

“That really helped because people were feeling confident,” he told THE CITY. “If the priest is OK with it and they’re having it at the church, then they’re going to go.”

At a pop-up vaccination site in early April at St. Leo’s church in Corona, nearly 500 appointments were filled within an hour, Moya said.

Gabriela Almaraz fries corn tortillas while serving an order of tacos de birria in Corona Plaza, Queens.
Gabriela Almaraz fries corn tortillas while serving an order of tacos de birria.
Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Our Lady of Sorrows, a Roman Catholic church in Corona, reportedly lost more than 100 congregants to COVID-19. Starting this week, the church will host a vaccination site with the help of the Plaza del Sol health center, which lacks the space to do vaccinations in large volume, said Paloma Hernandez, the CEO of parent group Urban Health Plans.

“We’ve always had that relationship. So when I was desperately looking for space, I reached out to them right away and Father Rodriguez was very, very willing and able — and very graciously volunteered his lower church for vaccines,” Hernandez said.

With help from the church, the health center can administer up to 200 doses a day and is already booked through the remainder of the week, Hernandez added.

Going to People

But vaccination issues are far from over.

“We are at a point where the people who were going to get vaccinated — by the most part — are and it’s going to get more difficult unless we’re able to reach people where they are,” said Hernandez, who also oversees facilities in Upper Manhattan and The Bronx.

Health officials need to start “looking at the needs of the community, rather than force the community to accept certain constraints” when it comes to vaccinations, said Bruce Y. Lee, the executive director of the Public Health Informatics Computational and Operations Research and a professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy.

“We need to create a situation where it’s really convenient for them to get this,” he added, noting that a vaccination site open late or overnight might be more beneficial for a community where many people work during the day and might not be able to take off work.

For Hernandez, vaccination outreach is “going to get harder as time goes” and will need to be approached similar to HIV testing roughly three decades ago.

“We had to revert to going into nail salons and barber shops and really going in with community health workers and finding out what were the issues and talking to people one-on-one, which is difficult and costly,” she said. “But I think that’s what’s going to have to be done and the quicker people get on that bandwagon the quicker we’ll be successful in vaccinating more people.

“We’re nowhere near where we need to be. But the message is getting out there. We’re creating accessible pop-ups that are helping our community,” said Moya, who’s been asking the mayor’s office for more people to descend on the area to sign people up for vaccinations.

Processing Trauma

While Corona residents line up for vaccinations, many are still processing more than a year’s worth of trauma.

For Sánchez, it’s a litany of memories: From her landlord calling the cops to have her thrown out because she couldn’t pay rent to cutting her TV and internet service because she couldn’t afford it. She witnessed mothers with babies standing in the cold and rain outside food pantries, deciding that their needs were greater than hers.

She described how young people who lost their jobs took to drinking at a nearby park. And she recalled women with their young children spending Christmas and New Years sleeping under a bridge.

“Me and my kids would bring them food whenever we could. The little we had, we would bring because it’s sad to see a baby in those conditions,” Sánchez said. “There were so many bad things.”

Ana, 35, poses for a portrait near the shopping cart that houses her tamales business.
Ana, 35, poses for a portrait near the shopping cart that houses her tamales business.
Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Ana, 35, who sells tamales near the subway station, described her panic when five days passed last March without being able to reach her husband, who was hospitalized for 28 days from the coronavirus.

“I thought he was dead,” she recounted. When she finally heard from him he was only able to whisper a few words at a time. “It was hell for me.”

Guillén’s 21-year-old daughter contracted the virus in the fall and spent five weeks barely being able to sit up.

“It was a very difficult time,” Guillén said through tears, “We overcame it, thanks to God.”

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