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California

Column: This isn’t just a fight against a virus. It’s a fight for communities, neighborhoods and people

Store clerk Rutilio Lopez (CQ), right, waits for customers at the Royal Liquor Mart on Saturday, April 4, 2020 in West Adams, CA.
(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

It’s hard to believe it took just a few weeks for this pandemic to remake this city.

Everything feels smaller and quieter. Once we roamed a sprawling metropolis, and now we pace our blocks. Our social lives now play out on phone and laptop screens. Before there were many stories in the news, and now there’s only one, and it’s inescapable, menacing us from every unwiped surface and errant gust of wind.

But this crisis has also gifted us with the clarity to see our city more clearly. And I’ve never found my neighborhood more beautiful, more heroic, more inspiring.

On my daily walks, I notice the sun bursting through old shade trees and outlining cracked concrete and smudged stucco in gold. I listen for the whistle of the neighbor’s parakeet and the bell ringing on the ice cream cart.

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I’ve never before so appreciated the scent of baking pan dulce in the mornings, because it means that the bakery outside is still open, and that the grocery store has bread, and that the bakery’s workers have work.

I’ve never treasured the smell of sizzling carne asada on the street as much as I do now. I even miss the screech of the tires on the cars doing doughnuts at night, followed, almost always too late, by the drone of the helicopter and the howl of the sirens.

On my block — and on every block — life continues for those who have no choice but to continue living it.

At the local liquor store, Rutilio Lopez is ringing up orders behind a newly installed pane of bulletproof glass. He struggles to operate his iPhone through gloved hands, and above his face mask, his eyes are red from exhaustion. He can’t stop working because he has to feed his family and pay rent. So he wears protective equipment, and when he gets home, he removes all his clothes and disinfects everything before his wife allows him to go into the house.

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And that’s the least of his struggles.

A shopper wears a mask to guard against the coronavirus as he picks out produce items at the Advance Food Market on Saturday, April 4, 2020 in West Adams, CA.
(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

“Do you know what I had to go through to get that toilet paper?” he said, pointing at a shelf of single rolls. Lopez woke up at 5 a.m. and made four different trips to warehouses, accumulating toilet paper rolls a few at a time.

At Happy Faces Party Supply next door, business has slowed to a halt, said owner Eric Varela. In one weekend, it lost its whole month of party business to cancellations.

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If Ashley Soltero had turned 15 in any other year, her quinceañera would have been much, much different.

Varela tried selling quarantine-related goods such as bottled water and ramen for a few days, but eventually he had to close. He believes in the wisdom of the stay-at-home order. Someday, he’d like to reopen, but for now, he just wants to be safe.

“Now it’s about I help you, and you help me,” he said.

Down the street, the local taco truck still parks at the bakery, but orders are down by more than 70%. The truck’s customers — laborers, landscapers and workers from the bakery — are losing income and buying less.

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Rockenwagner Bakery, a bread supplier to many of the region’s groceries and restaurants, had to cut staff hours after losing more than half of its business overnight when stay-at-home orders were issued weeks ago.

In a bid to keep their 300 employees, Patti Rockenwagner and her husband, Hans, decided to turn the bakery into a grocery and bread delivery business — “oven to table,” as Rockenwagner has taken to calling it. They partnered with a farm to offer a produce box and turned their cafe in Mar Vista into a to-go order pickup center and market. A fleet of 40 trucks that once delivered to restaurants began delivering products directly to people’s homes.

“It’s like building the plane while refueling it and flying it and sanitizing it at the same time,” Rockenwagner said. “It’s a real test of an entrepreneur’s mettle.”

An employee at Rockenwagner Bakery heads back into the building after ordering food from a taco truck parked on West Adams Blvd. on Saturday, April 4, 2020 in West Adams, CA. (
(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)
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Many of their employees had to learn new jobs and retrain on the fly, such as David Davila, 32, a supply chain coordinator who now spends his shifts doing data entry.

Davila’s hours have been cut by about 60%. So he pored over his bank statements, canceled his Disney+ subscription, and is thinking of canceling his gym membership and Hulu subscription as well. He’s also planning to put his electric guitar up for sale and cut down on toys and pizza nights for his son. If his unemployment check comes through, he should be able to keep paying rent and feeding his family.

“At some point the business is going to decide whether they can stay open. But right now, I’m OK,” Davila said.

Davila has worked since he was 16, born to a family of immigrants in Downey. Struggle is all he has known ever since his first job at Champs Sports in the mall. But this is the first time he’s ever had to apply for unemployment.

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“I’ve always had to fight my whole life, so this is just another battle,” Davila said.

As long as the bakery stays open, restaurants such as Overland Cafe can buy bread and try to generate revenue to stay afloat.

Mark Sands started the restaurant 46 years ago with his parents. The loss of his dining room business forced him to cut his staff of 23 to a skeleton crew of three. Like many other restaurants, he’s trying to survive on delivery services and exploring the idea of converting to a grocery store or food pantry.

He’s more fortunate than most — he owns his building and has a small mortgage that his bank has extended for three months. But business has fallen off by more than 90%. On weekdays, he works the front of the house himself with a cook in the back.

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He is 66 years old, and he knows that showing up to the restaurant places him at greater risk. He wears gloves and a face mask, but it’s scary anyway.

A man carries groceries past the shuttered Beylul Restaurant on Saturday, April 4, 2020 in West Adams, CA.
(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

“I can’t stop thinking, did I touch that light switch? Did I use that computer, that doorknob?” Sands said. “You start driving yourself crazy. Do they have COVID on the credit cards?”

But the restaurant, Sands said, is his life, the main reason he gets out of bed in the mornings. He never had children of his own, and he considers the staff his family. And his kitchen manager has a young baby at home and recently underwent an expensive operation.

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“What keeps me up at night is, will I make this guy’s payroll? Will I have to ask him to accept a pay cut?” Sands said.

Crisis is like stage lighting, throwing the best and worst parts of humanity into sharp contrast. Whether it reveals heroes or villains is up to us.

Make no mistake — this fight is not just against a virus. It’s also a fight for life — the one we knew, and the one we don’t know yet, the one that’s to take shape. And we all need to join this fight.

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WEST ADAMS, CA - APRIL 04: A customer leaves the Royal Liquor Mart on Saturday, April 4, 2020 in West Adams, CA.
(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

Sometimes you fight by giving your tenant a break on rent, because you understand that you cannot prosper if they can’t survive. Sometimes you fight by changing your whole business model to try to keep your employees. Sometimes you fight by letting your employees go home to keep them safe.

You can fight by giving money to those who need it, by staying home, or by leaving it, if that’s what you have to do to feed your family. You can fight by contacting your elected leaders and telling them that a $1,200 check and a patchwork of porous eviction protections are not enough, not even close.

You fight by recognizing that the life we treasure cannot exist if our neighbors lose their jobs; that what little of the world still functions is held up by those less fortunate than you.

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The world may feel smaller and quieter, but it is still right there, on the block, the one you’re walking on every day. And that world needs you.

For now, the bakery owner is cutting hours so the bakery employee can keep his job, feed his son and pay rent. Which means the taco truck that depends on the bakery employees for lunch service can keep parking outside, which means that the family that owns the truck has a chance of paying rent.

For now, the banker has extended the terms of the restaurant owner’s mortgage. Which means that the restaurant owner can try to convert the businesses into a food pantry, delivery business or charitable feeding organization. Which means the food suppliers can earn income and their employees can keep their jobs.

For now, we are brave, and kind and absolutely inspiring. We are keeping each other afloat with the sweat and tears of our sacrifice. We are powerfully reminding each other of the strength of our connections and community.

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For now, we are fighting. But for how long?


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