NEW YORK • With New York restaurants closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, residents unused to eating at home are increasingly relying on the city’s army of bicycle delivery men for their dinner.
The 40,000 workers – almost always immigrants without health insurance or legal papers – have been playing a critical role, with all eateries and bars ordered to shut from last Monday to next Wednesday.
The riders, who zip around the Big Apple on pedal and electric bikes with parcels of takeaway food hanging from handlebars, fear contagion too.
However, they say they have no choice but to continue working.
“While others are at home, we face the risk of getting Covid-19. This truly worries me,” said Mr Alberto Gonzalez, who has no healthcare coverage. “I have a wife and four children at home. They are all taking steps to stay inside, but what good is it if I put them at risk by being on the streets?”
The closures allow New Yorkers to order a delivery or pick up takeaway food, but not sit in restaurants – providing some consolation to the millions stuck at home.
Mr Gonzalez, who lives in Brooklyn and works with pro-immigrant organisation Make The Road New York, says riders “need more protection.”
“It is not clear who has priority for the tests, and whether those without insurance or legal status will have to pay for the tests and treatment,” he said.
Delivery riders and drivers are trying to eliminate as much risk as possible so they do not catch the virus, which has killed thousands of people worldwide and brought cities grinding to a halt.
Many wear gloves and masks, and regularly apply disinfectant gel, while some have even taken to wrapping plastic bags around the handlebars of their bikes.
“Every time I deliver food I put sanitiser on my hands and change my gloves,” Mexican delivery driver Luis Ventura said as he got off his electric bike in central Manhattan.
The 30-year-old lost his job as a chef at a Greek restaurant a few days ago due to plummeting business sparked by the pandemic.
Some restaurants are closing and letting staff go after a collapse in orders has left them struggling to pay rent and wages.
Mr Ventura works for food delivery company Postmates, where he makes US$9 (S$13) an hour, less than New York’s US$15 minimum wage.
“Honestly, this month the money will not reach me,” he lamented.
Mr Abdoulayle Diallo, from Guinea in West Africa, says he takes extra care when touching doorknobs and elevator buttons in customers’ buildings.
“You don’t know who could be sick,” said the 19-year-old, who has worked for delivery company Seamless for two years.
“I am going to continue working because I have no choice. If I sit at home, I don’t get paid at all.”
The delivery men are part of America’s gig economy: They receive no benefits and get paid only for the work they do.
Some New Yorkers on social media have called on residents to increase tips for delivery men out of solidarity.
But about a dozen dealers interviewed by Agence France-Presse said they had not seen an uptick in citizens’ generosity.
“The job is down too much, 70 per cent,” said Mr Martin Balderas, a 60-year-old Mexican delivery man for Manhattan fried chicken restaurant Atomic Wings.
“I pray to God to avoid contagion, but we are all at risk,” he added.
Mr Balderas earns US$8 an hour and has no health insurance.
He supports his wife in New York and sends money to children and grandchildren in Mexico, and says he cannot afford to self-isolate.
“The family has to eat, and the rent is not forgiving here,” he said.
New York mayor Bill de Blasio has offered interest-free loans of up to US$75,000 for businesses with fewer than 100 employees that prove they have lost at least 25 per cent of their income.
But it cannot save the many restaurants burdened with sky-high rents.
For Mr Ousmane Savadogo, a 33-year-old delivery man from the Ivory Coast, it all depends on how long the crisis goes on.
He said: “If this lasts two weeks, that’s fine. But if it lasts longer, things get complicated.”