In African American communities ravaged by covid-19, residents like Riley are wondering what they might do to soften the virus's deadly blow. The pandemic wasn't simply exposing the disparities within their city. It was making them worse.
As of Monday, 33 of the 45 residents who died of covid-19 in Milwaukee County were black, according to the medical examiner. That's 73 percent, though black residents made up fewer than half of the county's coronavirus infections and about 28 percent of the total county population.
The disparity is even more glaring when looking statewide: Black residents here represent nearly half of the coronavirus-related deaths in Wisconsin, a state that is 6 percent black.
No part of the black community here has been left untouched by the virus: It passed through blocks with stately middle-class homes where wild turkeys grazed on front lawns and in poorer sections where swales are strewn with empty vodka bottles and used surgical gloves. The virus touched the lives of students at a neighborhood high school, where a basketball coach died after contracting it. It touched the local police department, which lost a retired lieutenant. It touched families who lived on 44th Street and 32nd Street and 57th Street, where relatives wondered if their loved ones got all the medical attention they needed to keep them alive.
Black communities were seeing similar patterns in Detroit, Chicago and New Orleans. The deadly path was a detour from early anecdotes that the disease would spread in social circles of wealthy travelers.
“At first, we thought this disease wasn’t about us,” said Yaya Shareef, a mother of four who operates a small business with her husband fixing garage doors. “Then, we thought it was elders who should be concerned. Then, it was those whose immune systems were compromised. But now, it’s my neighbors.”
The city’s mayor, Tom Barrett, said officials are trying to address the disparity. He said that the county was quick to identify the trend, as one of the few jurisdictions in the United States collecting data related to race. Residents there are now tested at nearly twice the rate of the city’s majority-white areas.
The biggest challenge, though, is how to stop the spread. Barrett said the city is trying new ways to relay the risks of the virus and the importance of social distancing. That’s difficult when communicating through churches and community meetings is no longer an option.
“We absolutely know this information has to hit the street level,” Barrett said.
For Shareef, those solutions were insufficient.
When she looks out of her window onto the unusually quiet streets of the Metcalfe Park neighborhood — a predominantly black community on the city’s north side — she occasionally sees groups walking less than six feet apart. But that behavior wasn’t much different from what she and her husband witnessed when they ventured to the white side of the county to find essential supplies or to go to work.
The issue is that they had to go to the white side of town to maintain a living.
When the governor issued policies to encourage residents to stay at home, she and many others in her community simply could not. They could not Zoom in to their spots on the assembly line or at the nursing home. They needed to travel to get groceries and gas, because options in the neighborhood were few. Each interaction, every step they had to take to maintain their livelihood, carried a great risk.
Last week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) wrote a letter calling on the federal government to follow Milwaukee’s lead in collecting data about testing, infection and death by race. The lawmakers argued that data would ensure resources are properly deployed to minority communities.
“A pandemic exposes the deep and devastating effects of inequality throughout this country,” Warren said in a phone interview. “It was always there, but it’s the coronavirus that has brought it to the surface.”
In the absence of a comprehensive strategy, most of the solutions to help reduce cases in Milwaukee’s north side were largely homemade.
Teenagers wore bandannas over their faces while shooting hoops outside. A woman at a Walgreens pulled a shopping cart behind her — instead of pushing it in front of her — to make sure no one came too close.
Local activist Vaun Mayes live-streamed a show on Facebook to implore others to take the disease seriously. On Saturday, nearly 400 viewers watched him confront a manager at a local ice cream shop, where crowds of patrons were congregating in the parking lot.
Mayes handed her a flier encouraging the manager to enforce social distancing. She said she was trying; she was just overwhelmed.
“I appreciate that,” said Mayes, warning her that law enforcement did not need any more reason to criminalize the neighborhood. “We don’t want the police to come out here ticketing and arresting people.”
Those watching responded with a mix of praise, fear and skepticism. Some of his followers were convinced Mayes was falling for a hoax and spreading false information.
“Why you acting like Trump?” one conspiracy theorist wrote.
“Holler at me if you need masks,” a believer wrote.
“I’m panicked,” another viewer had written earlier in the week. “I don’t wanna die. I got kids.”
When Mayes read the panicked message, he tried to compare the global outbreak to a neighborhood issue they all understood.
“Consider it like crime,” Mayes said. “You know it’s out there, but you still have to try to live your life. You just have to be aware.”
Rodney Crape and his wife, Lydia, were all too aware. They were grocery shopping March 19 when his twin brother posted a picture on Facebook from the emergency room. Roderick Crape, a 54-year-old struggling with obesity and diabetes, died of the coronavirus a few hours after he was admitted.
“When he took that picture, he wasn’t on a ventilator, and he died eight hours later,” said Rodney Crape, an IT engineer. “If it was that serious, don’t you think he should have been on immediately? Being low-income and poor, it doesn’t feel like [he was] a priority.”
His sudden death made his relatives question how equipped the city was to handle the virus. Roderick Crape was tested for the coronavirus, they said, but the hospital didn’t have the results for two days — after he was already gone.
Health-care access here is limited; there is only one hospital on the north side. And multigenerational families live atop one another in crammed apartments, with potential asymptomatic young people exposing elders to the virus.
Nationwide, African Americans tend to have higher rates of obesity, diabetes and asthma — underlying conditions that medical experts say exacerbate covid-19’s deadly potential. In Milwaukee, one of the most segregated cities in the country, those disparities are so great that the city government declared a “public health crisis.”
Given the dynamics of the community, Rodney Crape wondered why the government wasn’t taking even more proactive steps in stopping the spread there.
“Where are the masks?” Crape asked. “Why aren’t we going around testing everybody?”
Hardships had already taken hold. Melody McCurtis, who followed her mother’s footsteps and became a community organizer at Metcalfe Park Community Bridges, admitted that she did not take the virus seriously until the school system was closed in mid-March.
Four local gas stations in Metcalfe Park and a corner shop were boarded up after the stay-at-home order was issued, deserting the neighborhood, which has only one major supermarket.
After schools closed, McCurtis’s mother, Danell Cross, went to the supermarket to buy chicken for a pot of soup. But there was none. Nor was there Lysol, bleach or toilet paper. Canned vegetables were limited to four per person.
These situations were common across the country, but they had a particular impact in Metcalfe Park where there were so few options. Many families in the neighborhood do not use delivery apps or drive cars, which meant they have to take a half-hour bus ride to another part of town for groceries.
“So now, we are talking about hopping on a bus and being around more people and possibly getting exposed,” said Cross, executive director of the Community Bridges group.
The area has lost 16 of its 52 food pantries, lacking enough healthy volunteers to operate them, according to Sherrie Tussler, executive director of the nonprofit Hunger Task Force. The one closest to Metcalfe Park has reduced its hours.
The county-run welfare office also reduced its hours, leaving residents confused about when it was open.
A little after 1 p.m. on a recent Thursday, eight residents crowded at the building’s locked door, hoping that an employee might let them in. It wasn’t until they saw the notice taped to the door — the new office hours were from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Tuesdays to Thursdays — that they learned of the policy.
“Google said [they were open at] 4:30,” one person said.
“I was here at 1 o’clock, and they still didn’t let me in,” said another.
Darryl Nelson, 32, stared at the notice, shook his head, and turned away. He was working a temp job on an assembly line until his boss told him the factory was shutting down. Nelson had only been out of work a few hours, so he called the city's social services hotline to find out how to get emergency food stamps.
He walked back to his beat-up old sedan, where his wife, Sasha, was waiting for him.
“If we don’t get those stamps, we don’t eat,” she said. She was out of a job, too — the nursing home where she worked had also shut down.
“Donald Trump is just doing this to hold up this election,” she continued, citing another popular but unproven theory in the neighborhood. “I don’t get it; it’s not that serious. They say this thing is airborne. But if its airborne, we’d all be sick right now.”
“It is serious,” her husband responded. “People are dying. A lot of our people.”
Sasha Nelson got quiet. “I don’t know what to do.”
In Metcalfe Park, McCurtis and Cross — the mother and daughter pair leading the community group — had come up with an idea of what to do. If groceries were so hard to come by and food pantries were cutting hours, they would distribute care packages themselves.
They solicited donations and collected food from a pantry struggling to get volunteers. The local United Way donated diapers and 750 large trash bags. They called some of their neighbors to pack them all. A public health expert had agreed to allow residents to text him if they had questions about covid-19, so his name and number were printed on postcards.
On the morning McCurtis and Cross were supposed to set out, boxes of donations crowded their office floor. McCurtis was taken aback. Before her was a physical manifestation of just how much was out there, even when things seemed impossible to find in her community.
There were boxes of Cocoa Puffs and olive oil, packages of smoked salmon and frozen pizza. There were chicken nuggets, onions and peanut butter. There were toothbrushes and toothpaste and toilet paper and tampons. Washcloths and hand sanitizer and grocery store gift cards.
“We might have overdone it,” McCurtis said.
The volunteers donned masks and gloves and started making packages for as many households as they could. She figured it would take them four hours, but that was optimistic. Six hours in, the group was still packing.
One volunteer took off her shoes because her feet were throbbing from all the standing. Another one left to cough in a hallway; something in the room was triggering her asthma. A few minutes later, she returned to finish the job.
“Does anyone have a phone with a loud speaker that we could use so we could play some music?” McCurtis asked.
A volunteer suggested they play an old-school song by late Bill Withers, who had died earlier that week.
Lean on me, when you’re not strong,
And I’ll be your friend . I’ll help you carry on.
For it won’t be long, ‘til I’m gonna need,
Somebody to lean on.
McCurtis, her mother and the other volunteers joined in the singing, and the famous song of solidarity rose again as an anthem of hope.
Dan Simmons contributed to this report.