When the Virus Came for the American Dream

In the reopening of the state, some of Cohen Morris’s constituents saw hope: If business did pick back up, restaurants and hotels and construction sites would need cheap labor again. But others were terrified. “My friends were saying, ‘Well, I’m stuck, because I need to work, I don’t have enough savings to stay home, but I don’t want to get sick,’” Cohen Morris recalled. By April 20, DeKalb County alone had reported more than 1,500 total cases of coronavirus. By April 30, the total had risen to more than 2,000.

To Cohen Morris, the fact that Kemp was reversing the lockdown was cause enough for alarm. States like Minnesota were keeping residents at home through June; in Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, would not allow the state to enter the final phase of reopening until July. Some of Georgia’s neighbors in the Southeast were putting into place what Cohen Morris felt were more common-sense measures: Tennessee, for example, reopened in late April but permitted individual counties to help shape their own plans and protocols. Even President Trump seemed skeptical, suggesting after Kemp’s announcement that Georgia could “wait a little bit longer. Just a little bit, not much. Because safety has to predominate.”

Kemp’s approach left no room for municipal governments to be flexible: Local regulations, he ordered, could not be “more or less restrictive” than the state mandate. “Our orders sought to bring clarity to Covid-19 restrictions statewide,” Cody Hall, a spokesman for Kemp, told me recently, arguing that the diverging local rules throughout the state were often confusing. But Cohen Morris said: “It was a big blanket directive, and it left us no agency to do what was right for us.” She added: “The governor wanted businesses to reopen, but he didn’t really care what happened to the people who had to work there. He wanted to wash the state’s hands of having to support them.”

In May, in the parking lot of a taqueria off Buford Highway, I met a woman named Maria, whom Cohen Morris knew through her previous work with Los Vecinos. Dark-haired and short, with rounded features and wide-set almond eyes, Maria — who asked to be identified only by her first name on account of her family’s immigration status — was in her mid-60s. She and her youngest daughter came to the United States from Monterrey, Mexico, in 2003 to join Maria’s then-husband, a janitor at a local hotel. Maria and her daughter, whom she asked be identified only by her first initial, G., stayed. Maria’s ex-husband did not. “We were fighting about money; we fought about everything,” she told me. After he left, she took a series of odd jobs: house cleaner, cook at McDonald’s, cashier at a popular hair salon on Buford Highway.

In 2018, G., who has Down syndrome and a heart condition, graduated from high school. “While G. was still in school, she had friends, she had her teachers,” Maria said. “She could take unpaid internships at places like Kroger and Pizza Hut. It made her feel valuable. It made her feel like she was needed. But she does not have papers, and after graduation, all of that went away. I thought: What’s a job that we can do together, so I can be there for my daughter?”

She settled on baking and set out to relearn some of her late mother’s favorite recipes: chocolate flan, small cakes, pay de queso (a Mexican cheesecake). Her daughter enjoyed being her assistant, and the two other immigrants who shared their two-bedroom apartment on Buford Highway were happy to serve as taste testers. “They liked the free samples,” Maria joked. “My flan is very strong.” Three or four times a week, in the evenings, Maria and her daughter would walk to the taquerias that lined the highway and sell pastries and bouquets of fresh flowers Maria arranged herself to the customers waiting in line for takeout.

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