The 55-year-old Honduran immigrant is one of the few in his apartment building to still have a job.
Yet with each day on his construction site came the risk of bringing the novel coronavirus home with him: home to his daughter with disabilities and a feeding tube in her stomach; home to a 7-year-old son with asthma; home to a wife without legal status and a household where the adults lack health insurance in a neighborhood packed with other vulnerable families.
As the coronavirus sweeps across the country, claiming the lives of thousands and crippling the economy, immigrant communities are likely to be among the hardest hit. The pandemic could be particularly devastating for Langley Park, a neighborhood just seven miles from the White House where 70 percent of adults are not U.S. citizens — one of the highest rates in the United States — and many are undocumented.
Here, countless cooks, construction workers and cleaners are suddenly out of a job without any chance of unemployment benefits or federal stimulus checks. Those who still work often do so in close quarters and at high risk of infection, even as their more affluent neighbors in Takoma Park or Silver Spring telework from the safety of single-family homes.
Maryland’s governor had issued a stay-at-home order. The normally bustling neighborhood was quiet save for the occasional chime of an ice cream truck. The sidewalks, usually occupied by people selling food or clothing, were largely empty. Only the parking lots were full: bumper to bumper with cars no longer taking hourly workers to blue-collar jobs.
“We know this is an unprecedented time of uncertainty and anxiety for our residents,” began a note in Spanish on the entrance to Marco’s apartment building that recommended out-of-work renters apply for unemployment and expect federal stimulus checks, even though few were eligible.
Another note informed residents that, although the coronavirus had closed the leasing office, it had not canceled rent payments, which should be dropped through a slot in a metal box.
It was the first of the month, yet Marco — who has temporary protected status but spoke on the condition that his last name not be used, to protect his wife, Maria — didn’t have the entire $1,270. He didn’t even have enough for his insulin, which he had run out of three weeks ago. So he kept working, even as the situation grew more dire.
“Today I heard some shocking news,” he told Maria, who is from Guatemala. “On the radio, they said there are groups of people who shut themselves inside and then started feeling sick but never went to a hospital. More than 20 people have died that way from this disease.”
“Encerrados?” she asked. Shut in?
“Encerrados,” he said, “because they didn’t have money, they didn’t have jobs, and they didn’t go to a clinic for a checkup.”
Maria gasped. This was what she feared most: that the same desperation that had driven her family to rent out their bedroom and sleep four to a bed in the living room would get them sick.
“And they all died?” she asked.
As they talked, Nataly lay on the dingy carpet next to a used thermometer, the valve from her feeding tube poking up under her pink Disney Princess T-shirt. She didn’t understand why her father no longer hugged her when he got home from work.
“Did their whole families die?” Maria asked again, worrying about a virus that was already closer to home than she knew.
'Everyone is afraid'
They had moved here five years ago, drawn by the low rent and a sense of community that came with 20,000 people — most from Central America — packed into a single square mile.
As densely populated as parts of New York City, Langley Park is a maze of aging apartment complexes where neighbors from rural Guatemala now found themselves sharing a laundry room or a ride to a construction site or even a bedroom partitioned with sheets.
But in a pandemic, that proximity could be deadly.
“This distancing that they are talking about doesn’t apply here,” said Jorge Sactic, a local business leader and bakery owner.
Already, the Zip code that includes Langley Park has 97 confirmed cases of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, according to more-detailed data released Sunday by state officials about Maryland’s 8,225 cases and 235 deaths. The community’s true tally is probably far higher.
Few of the country’s estimated 7 million undocumented workers — janitors, construction workers, landscapers, caregivers — have health insurance, and even those who do often avoid seeking medical attention.
“There is definitely that fear of going to the hospital, getting help, going to the police, raising your head at all so that you’re noticed,” said Mark Edberg, a public health professor at George Washington University who has done research and outreach in Langley Park since 2005.
That fear has grown under President Trump, who has combined anti-immigrant rhetoric and increased enforcement with policies designed to prevent even some legal immigrants from receiving benefits such as food stamps and Medicaid.
Last month, as states began issuing stay-at-home orders, Immigration and Customs Enforcement was still conducting raids. Though ICE has since suspended most enforcement nationwide and said it won’t arrest immigrants seeking medical attention, “the damage is done already,” said Maryland Del. Wanika B. Fisher (D-Prince George’s), who represents Langley Park.
Local churches, clinics and the immigrant advocacy group CASA, based in Langley Park, have struggled to continue providing services.
The pandemic’s shadow first fell on Langley Park in early March, when cleaners began receiving word that their services were no longer welcome.
“They don’t want us going to their houses because they say we can bring them the virus,” said a 30-year-old woman from El Salvador. She hadn’t worked in a month, yet her $1,100 rent was still due. She had heard landlords weren’t supposed to evict anyone during the crisis, but, as with so many things, she feared there were other rules for undocumented people. Asked if she had enough in her savings to get by, she scoffed.
“I don’t have a bank account,” she said.
Another house cleaner from Guatemala said her husband had died in November after untreated headaches turned out to be brain cancer. Now on her own, she had lost her income yet was ineligible for unemployment. When she tried to apply for other jobs, she was told she needed papers.
“Thanks to this virus, I have nothing,” the 53-year-old said. “Who is going to help us?”
Hundreds more in Langley Park lost their jobs on March 19, when Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) ordered the closure of malls, including La Union, the mall on the edge of Langley Park where Sactic had run La Chapina Bakery for two decades.
Sactic was forced to lay off his five employees and was considering filing for bankruptcy. He predicted that few of the mall’s 50 businesses would survive.
“This is going to be catastrophic,” he said.
When Hogan ordered nonessential companies closed on March 23, many construction projects came to a halt.
Among those out of a job was Marco’s downstairs neighbor, Juan, an undocumented carpenter from Guatemala. Two years ago he had brought his then-teenage son to the United States, but the boy had been laid off as well. So had Juan’s nephew, with whom he and his son lived.
Back in Guatemala, where a wife he hadn’t seen in 15 years was waiting for him, there were about 150 reported coronavirus cases and only a few fatalities. But here in Prince George’s County, there were already 2,000 and more than 50 deaths.
“Everyone is afraid of getting sick,” Juan said.
By Langley Park standards, Marco was lucky. His temporary protected status allowed him to work legally. He was even eligible for federal stimulus checks.
But his job was also precarious. Plumbers and carpenters on the project had already been fired.
To generate more income, he and Maria rented a food truck a few blocks away to a friend named Jose Santos. As dusk settled on Langley Park on the first day of April, they decided to go see if Santos would continue renting.
The walk was the first time in days that Nataly and her brother, Kenny — both born in the United States — had been outside. Dressed in a flowery print and plastic pearls, Nataly chased her sibling around as their parents talked about the pandemic.
“I heard a lady in No. 24 got infected,” Santos told them. “They took her to the hospital in an ambulance.”
It was the first case Maria knew of in the neighborhood. She glanced up at the apartment buildings all around her.
“Well,” she said, wringing her small hands. “There you have it.”
'She is there alone'
The ambulance had arrived March 30, not to the apartment building Santos identified but to the one next door. As anxious neighbors watched from balconies across the grassy courtyard, paramedics had hurried downstairs to a basement unit with a Santa Claus welcome mat.
Inside, past a dachshund named Petey and a set of cheery Christmas lights, they found a 24-year-old woman shut inside her room, struggling to breathe.
The woman had started feeling nauseous a week earlier, according to her roommate, Yasmin Alfaro.
“She works at an ophthalmologist’s office,” Alfaro said. “She told me people were coming in, coughing, but they weren’t given any [protective] equipment.”
Her roommate didn’t have insurance, Alfaro said. When she called urgent care two days after getting sick, she was told her symptoms didn’t match the coronavirus.
By the time she called 911, the woman could barely walk out of her apartment to the ambulance. She was immediately put on a ventilator, Alfaro said.
Two days later, Alfaro received a call from the hospital saying her roommate had tested positive for the coronavirus.
When the friends moved in a year ago, the two-bedroom apartment for $1,600 a month was the cheapest they could find. Now Alfaro used five bottles of Lysol wiping down the appliances, the furniture, even the walls.
She texted her roommate, but there was no answer. She wasn’t allowed to visit the hospital, and her roommate’s family was across the country.
“That’s the hardest part,” Alfaro said, “knowing that she is there alone.”
'A bit of Vicks'
Marco had developed a recipe he believed would keep him healthy, which he prescribed to anyone who would listen with the confidence of a pharmacist.
“What I do before work is make myself a cup of coffee, nice and strong and black,” he had told Santos two days earlier. “The caffeine is good against any virus. And then a bit of Vicks under your nose. Vicks is good against any allergy, virus, whatever. Any bad air that passes under your nose, the Vicks attacks it and doesn’t let it pass.”
He claimed the coffee idea came from Li Wenliang, the Chinese doctor who had first raised alarms about the coronavirus.
“Didn’t he die?” Santos had replied.
Maria had doubts about the health of her husband, whose blood sugar had soared to dangerous levels. At home with the kids all day, she made tortillas from scratch and tried to clean the dilapidated apartment. But mostly what the 51-year-old did was worry.
Worry that her husband would bring home the coronavirus. Worry that her asthmatic son’s lungs wouldn’t be able to cope. And worry that her daughter, who suffers from a condition called Noonan syndrome and who had just started eating food by mouth a few months earlier, would regress without her special education classes.
Both children were supposed to receive laptops so they could continue their classes online. But when they went to pick them up on April 3, Kenny’s school had run out. So the siblings would have to share a single computer with a cracked screen. Their parents also would have to pay for Internet, which even discounted to $10 was an amount they couldn’t spare.
“Hola bambinos!” Marco said, returning home from work to find the children fighting over the new computer.
“Did you disinfect it?” he asked, squirting the laptop with a sizable portion of the family’s dwindling store of sanitizer.
The following day, he waited in line outside the bank to cash his paycheck and get a money order. Then he dropped the bulk of what he had earned into the metal rent box. He would breathe a little bit easier until Monday, when he would wake up early once more, make himself a cup of black coffee, smear his face with Vicks and go back to work.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the percentage of adults in Langley Park who are not U.S. citizens. It is 70 percent.