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Sonoma County launches coronavirus outreach to local Latinos

When Rocio Marquez lost her job cleaning offices about two years ago, she took a leap of faith and started her own business.

A former Monterey County strawberry picker who moved to Sonoma County six years ago, Marquez had always dreamed of being her own boss and wanted to see if her entrepreneurial skills could mean a boost in income, she said.

Over the course of several months, she and her husband scraped together enough money to open Pupusas y Tacos “Marquez,” a green food cart parked on the Whiskey Tip lot at the edge of Santa Rosa's Roseland neighborhood. Marquez put in long hours to keep it running, slowly building her business with the patronage of hungry workers who stopped at her Stony Point Road location for a bite to eat before work or for lunch.

But the coronavirus pandemic and county and state orders for people to stay at home have upended her business, depleting the steady stream of customers that once frequented her cart as more are out of work and strapped for cash, Marquez said.

“I'm going to wait to see what happens but right now I'm not making enough to pay rent, to cover the cost of food,” Marquez said, though she remained hopeful. “Really, there's nothing to do. We're just in the hands of God.”

The slowdown has meant one or two customers every few hours, spoiled meat that she's had to throw away and lingering fears about how she'll pay for the small group of employees that help run her business.

Marquez is not alone. Latino entrepreneurs across Sonoma County are struggling to keep their businesses afloat as a local order for residents to stay at home that went into effect March 18 has curtailed or halted most economic activity for the sake of minimizing the virus' spread, said Herman J. Hernandez, the president of the Sonoma County Latino leadership group Los Cien.

The order has sent shock waves throughout the local Latino community, particularly among undocumented workers and low-income families - two groups who are more likely to be living paycheck to paycheck and who can have a hard time recovering from financial and psychological blows, he said.

“It's kind of a shock and unbelievable that you're in a situation like that,” Hernandez said. “When you look at the Latino community, at times at the top of the list is ‘How am I going to continue to support my family?'?”

Answers to those immediate concerns were a primary focus for Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore, who volunteered to work as the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors' liaison to the Latino community during the pandemic because of his ability to speak Spanish and his prior collaboration with the community during the Tubbs and Kincade fires, he said.

Conversations with dozens of local Latino-serving nonprofits and organizations made it clear that basic necessities like food, housing and cash, as well as accurate information about the virus, was in high demand, he said.

To address that information gap, Sonoma County supervisors have set aside over $25,000 to boost the public awareness of the coronavirus within Spanish-speaking communities, a strategy intended to make sure the community understands the threat of the virus and local stay-at-home orders, Gore said. The campaign includes paid radio public service announcements that launched Monday and Tuesday across six local stations after starting on one station last week. How frequently the radio station plays the announcements, and during which hours, varies from station to station, county spokeswoman Melissa Valle said.

Supermarkets across Sonoma County last week began playing informational video or audio messages about the virus as part of the outreach plan. Gore and a team of Spanish-speaking county officials on Tuesday also went live on KBBF, a local bilingual radio station, to take questions from Sonoma County residents about the virus. The radio station hosted a similar segment with Gore last week.

“It requires an intentional effort,” Gore said of the county's outreach to Spanish-speaking residents. “You can't just put out translated documents and expect it's going to hit folks in a targeted way.”

The timing of the county's efforts received some criticism among some local Latino group leaders, who said the county waited too long to actively inform the community about the virus. That included Zeke Guzman, president of the nonprofit group Latinos Unidos del Condado de Sonoma County, who last weekend spoke to a handful of farmworkers who described the virus as nothing more than a cough, Guzman said. He and another community organizer also witnessed several Latino families at local parks who weren't following social-distancing guidelines required by the county's order.

“I don't want to knock on anyone, this is a crisis,” said Guzman, who hopes to secure grants that will allow KBBF to launch more in-depth announcements about the coronavirus. “But we also want to look at how effective what we're doing is and who it's going to reach.” Gore acknowledged the frustration over the timing of the county's effort, but added that county staff members are tasked with dealing with solutions to both short and long-term problems that will arise from the pandemic.

“We have to attend to the present, but we also have to reach into the future to think about how we're going to get ahead of this,” Gore said.

At the Graton Day Labor Center, recent phone check-ins with the center's roughly 200 members show only about 10% are working, most of them farmworkers whose employers aren't covered by the shelter-in-place order that restricts or bans all but nonessential businesses including agriculture, said the center's executive director, Christy Lubin

The rest of the members, whose jobs range from day laborers to domestic workers and nannies, are struggling to find work. Some are single parents who can't leave their homes because schools stopped classroom instruction and there's no one else to care for their childen, Lubin said.

“Most people aren't hiring,” Lubin said. “My phone is ringing nonstop from members because their rent is due next week and they don't have enough food.”

On Friday, the center and two collaborating nonprofits, the North Bay Organizing Project and North Bay Jobs with Justice, reopened applications for the UndocuFund, which last year raised about a million dollars in donations for undocumented families impacted by the Kincade fire. Currently, undocumented workers are not eligible for federal or state unemployment assistance if they lose their jobs, Lubin said.

Organizers received close to 900 ?applications for assistance during the coronavirus pandemic by Monday afternoon and had raised close to $200,000 in the span of about 10 days, though the group's goal was to raise about $1 million total, Lubin said.

About 70 people were been helped by the fund as of early this week, including some who were homeless and living in cars or shelters.

“I think people are kind of devastated, that they just lost their jobs, that they might not be working until April 7,” Lubin said.

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com.

The Press Democrat wants to know what stories you see emerging and what you're experiencing locally during the shelter-in-place order. Reach out to us at coronavirus@pressdemocrat.com.

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