Bahar Ostadan reports:
Deysia Padilla’s family thought she was at work. Instead, she spent last Thursday afternoon unloading a mound of orange and pink baby socks in a sunny South Bronx laundromat – one-by one, in all their three-inch glory. She had 48 hours to consider an impossible choice: either get vaccinated or lose her job.
Padilla is one of thousands of unvaccinated New Yorkers affected by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ultimatum last week. Not only do city employees face the reality of losing their jobs, but without a shot, they’ll even forgo unemployment payments. Some unvaccinated Bronx natives would rather pursue a life outside New York City than be forced to take the vaccine.
“I feel like my dream is being shattered by the government,” said Padilla. “I’m being taken out of my home.” The 25-year-old mother had plans to become an art teacher one day. Now, she’s considering moving to Florida with her husband and three-month-old baby.
A pandemic-induced population shift to Florida – sometimes called the city’s sixth borough – is already under way. As of March, more than 33,500 New Yorkers permanently relocated to Florida – up 32% from the same period in the previous year. Experts say people flocked south for looser Covid restrictions, affordable housing, and access to in-person schools.
Most unvaccinated Bronx residents don’t fit neatly into the anti-mask, anti-vaccine framework that has spread nationally, according to Andrew Rasmussen, associate professor of psychology at Fordham University. The Bronx is still nursing its wounds after being hit tragically hard by the deadly virus – with the highest rates of hospitalizations, deaths and unemployment in New York City.
In the Bronx, where median per capita income in 2019 was $21,778 – over three and a half times lower than in Manhattan – 70% of the population works in face-to-face or essential jobs. Even now, people wear masks – sometimes two – while walking outdoors. Many are still nervous to shake hands with people outside their family. Building custodians diligently stroll the sidewalks, spraying Clorox.
“People are wearing double-masks, being really careful, but the vaccination rates in the neighborhood are still very low,” said Rasmussen. “That suggests that there’s something else going on there.”
Still, it is not unusual to hear Bronx residents voice more concern about the vaccine than the virus it is administered to prevent.
“I worry about the virus, but more importantly, I worry about the vaccine,” said Kelven Esbenel, 24. Six weeks ago, he started work at an Amazon fulfilment center in Staten Island, only to learn that the company may start requiring vaccinations under Biden’s new mandates. Now, he said he ponders a life in Connecticut, leaving his vaccinated family members behind.
“We can’t expect that medical systems who have earned the mistrust of many marginalized groups will now be trusted because of Covid. It doesn’t work that way,” said Tiffany Green, a population health scientist and economist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.