What Happened in Central Falls?

How a tiny New England mill city, and a family who calls it home, endures the long shadow of the coronavirus pandemic.

City Councilwoman Jessica Vega assisted council president Rivera in her campaign to raise funds for needy families in the early days of the pandemic and she helped feed 300 families with donations from the nonprofit Elisha Project. But just like the WeR1 Fund, Vega says, one-off efforts aren’t sustainable.

“If there’s all this federal funding, why not put it toward a community that’s disproportionately affected?” she says. “I’m not saying take anything away from Barrington. But at the end of the day…they’re the ones who are preparing your fast food at McDonald’s. They’re the ones cleaning your school. If they’re sick, you’re sick too.”

Some states are introducing mechanisms that could help hard-hit communities in the long-term. In early October, California launched an equity metric that defers reopening schedules in counties where Latino, Black and other residents of color are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. Later that month, the mayor of Chelsea, Massachusetts — a community akin to Central Falls with a majority Latino population and a high infection rate — announced Chelsea Eats, which extends up to $400 a month to more than 2,000 families in the city. The pilot program, which is funded primarily with COVID-19 federal relief monies, will run until April.

“It’s a lose-lose situation for our families,” says Vega, who also helps minority-owned businesses navigate COVID-19 federal relief programs through her day job at Social Enterprise Greenhouse. “Do you go to work and get sick or do you stay home and get kicked out of your home?”

Back in June, Vega heard from two Central Falls residents about working conditions at a factory in Walpole, Massachusetts. The residents claimed masking and social distancing were not enforced, and they were afraid to go to work. They were also afraid to speak up.

“I reached out to state elected officials, leadership in Rhode Island, city hall in Walpole,” Vega says, in addition to contacting the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. “I felt like nobody was listening.”

Vega contacted a Providence Journal reporter with hopes that some media attention might help solve the problem, but the workers say conditions only temporarily improved.

“They’re just asking for their humanity, their safety, their health to be taken into account,” she says. “There was another company that was having problems in East Providence, and they handled the situation quickly. They took care of it…. If you’re a business owner, why not keep your employees safe? It just doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Raul Figueroa, cooperative coordinator at the workers’ rights center Fuerza Laboral in Central Falls, typically connects victims of wage theft with legal rights organizations and helps immigrant workers start their own businesses. But, amid the coronavirus outbreak, his focus has shifted to helping workers advocate for pandemic-safe conditions. He has also distributed donations to those without jobs and passed out personal protective equipment.

At the outset of the coronavirus, Figueroa says, “We were getting phone calls every day; the phone would not stop ringing.”

But many in the community returned to work and play, and he says he’s worried they’re no longer taking the pandemic seriously. On one fall afternoon, a bustling intersection on Broad Street featured a masked mother and daughter giving a wide berth to a group of five bare-faced men in front of a cell phone store.

“I tell them it’s still urgent, but a lot of people have pulled their guard down because they see more people out, people are going to work,” Figueroa says. “They’re not taking the same precautions.”

Such a scenario is why the city hired thirty bilingual health ambassadors to distribute masks and disseminate information on the streets of Central Falls. From 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., every day of the week, residents can spot them in their bright orange hoodies, reflective vests and face shields. The positions, which pay $20 per hour and are funded through a grant from the Miriam Hospital and diversion dollars from the shuttered Memorial Hospital, will run through early January. City officials hope the initiative will reinvigorate residents on mask compliance.

Mario Bueno, executive director of the nonprofit Progreso Latino, says he’s hopeful Central Falls will be able to contain the spread of the coronavirus this winter. But he’s not so sure the socioeconomic consequences of the pandemic will relent — particularly for families with children in public school. Due to high case counts in the city, Central Falls students were given the option of virtual or hybrid learning for the foreseeable future. If students aren’t in school full-time, parents can’t return to work full-time without outside help.

“The concern, I think, for us is that many of these families are underwater in terms of meeting their basic needs,” he says. “To add child care costs on top of that would be significant and would be a tipping point for these families.”



Photo illustration by Dana Smith

“Hay mucho COVID.” Thirty people, Floridalma guesses, in her extended family have contracted COVID-19. Friends have died. And her brother’s son — the brother who survived a month in the hospital in April — was one of 100 people hospitalized for COVID-related complications one weekend in August.

He was discharged a few days later, and he’ll be okay. Floridalma and Fredy, who were symptomatic for seven weeks and out of work the whole time, will be okay too. By the fall, they’re a full month behind on rent, but their landlord has been understanding. Progreso Latino secured them $500 in rental assistance and the organization continues to be a lifeline for fresh food. They’ve had help, and they count themselves among the fortunate.

Those three $85 medical bills owed to Blackstone Valley Community Health Center, when Floridalma was so out of breath she could barely vocalize her symptoms to a doctor over the phone, still weigh on her. She’s had lingering toothaches — a common COVID long-hauler symptom — but she can’t get a dental appointment until her past-due bills are paid. And with all three kids learning virtually, she doesn’t feel comfortable babysitting for friends. She’s still not sure when Aylin, Dulce and Alexis will return to in-person learning. The thought of it brings tears to her eyes.

Es un miedo horible,” a horrible fear. She’s scared they’ll get sick, too. The kids all want to go back — especially Aylin, who works with her dad cleaning grocery stores so she can pay for English classes over Zoom. She wants to go to college, but she knows she can’t do it without fluency. Dulce misses her friends. And Alexis says it’s hard to ask his teacher questions with so many other faces on the screen. But he likes being home with his mom, who always helps him.

In October, Floridalma, Aylin and Dulce celebrate birthdays. It is Aylin’s first in the United States and they planned to go big for her with a night out at a cousin’s taco restaurant. As new twelve-year-olds do, Dulce dreamed bigger: a trip to Guatemala, maybe. COVID foiled all forms of wishful thinking.

In the end, they aren’t that sad about it. They stick close to home. They share dulce de leche birthday cake, Floridalma’s favorite. Fredy has to work a night shift, but Floridalma and the kids stay up late watching scary movies. They huddle together, grateful for the closeness and the tiny jolts of ephemeral fright.

The pandemic rages on at street level — Central Falls experiences a quadrupling of cases that month — but, for a while, they can forget how the coronavirus crossed their threshold and stayed awhile. Because, here and now, it doesn’t matter. They might be scared but they still have each other, and they hold on tight.

Residents of Central Falls, regardless of their immigration status, can call the BEAT COVID-19 hotline at 855-843-7620 for help scheduling a test or for access to family supports such as food and rental assistance.