Editor’s note: This story is the first in an occasional series called “Behind the Mask.” The coronavirus pandemic has upended life as we know it — our workplace, home and play. Yet life must be lived, even through social distancing. Each piece of “Behind the Mask” will explore how people in our community are adapting to their new life post-pandemic. Have a story to share? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I’ll be back in about a week… maybe 15 days.”
That’s what Reyna Rubio thought when the restaurant where she works as a manager/server called to tell her she would not be needed until further notice. That was March 18.
Rubio (her name has been changed by The Bee to protect her identity as an undocumented individual) became afraid for her 20-year-old daughter who, at the time, was visiting family in Puerto Rico. Her three sisters and mother live in Mexico and Puerto Rico. Rubio is unable to see them because of her undocumented status.
“I began to panic. My daughter’s return flight was canceled, and I was scared for her,” she said. “I feared that if I got COVID, there would be no one here to help even serve me a glass of water.”
When two weeks turned into three without work or income, Rubio realized the pandemic was bigger and far more destructive than she could have ever imagined.
Born in Morelia, Michoacán, in Mexico, Rubio migrated to the U.S. in 2008. She hasn’t visited her homeland since, but she texts and calls her mother and sisters daily and sends money for her mother’s upkeep every month. Now, the pandemic threatens to change everything.
“My sister offered to send me money if I needed it,” Rubio said. “It was nice to know I had the support, but I didn’t want to bother my family.”
Rubio knew she would not be eligible for California’s unemployment benefits and the Economic Impact Payment stimulus check. Her only option was to turn to her savings of about $3,000 and hope it would be enough to get her through the coming weeks.
“My money became like gold,” she said. “I had to make sure it would last, and I was smart on how I would use it.”
Rubio’s rent is $1,500 a month, and her savings covered her rent for April and May. Groceries and take-out food were luxuries she allowed herself only after all her monthly bills were paid. For the first time in her life, Rubio started paying only minimum amounts to her credit cards. She feared that not paying anything would create bigger problems.
She felt some relief when she heard about the state’s $500 relief for undocumented individuals. She set her alarm the night before the applications opened on May 17 and hoped for the best.
“Five-hundred dollars is a huge difference for people in my position,” she said. “It can change your life in these times.”
At that time, 80 percent of her savings were gone; she spent the next day calling the application helpline over and over; for three hours she was on hold, waiting for someone at the other end. In the end, she was disconnected and never got through to apply.
Rubio said she suffered silently and hid her financial struggles from her friends because she wanted to protect her immigration status.
“If they don’t ask, I don’t tell,” she said. “It’s not something I share openly.”
When she was down to only one week of savings, Rubio felt her anxiety rising and her spirit at its lowest.
“I had to stop watching the news,” she said. “I tried keeping up with the [Covid-19] cases and deaths once in a while, but I fell into a dark mental space.”
On May 13, Rubio was called back to work. She was relieved to be able to earn an income again, but her full-time hours have been reduced to roughly 30 hours a week. The restaurant began with to-go orders only. Rubio said her restaurant was awarded a stimulus that gave staff an $8 hourly raise to make up for the lack of tips. However, that stimulus ended on June 1. Rubio now has to rely solely on her minimum wage of $13 an hour.
Customers have slowly begun to trickle in, but the clientele flow has remained at less than 40 percent of pre-pandemic levels. Rubio’s regular clientele is mostly senior citizens and they have not returned due to their compromised health conditions.
“They are like my family. There’s one couple I call mom and dad,” she said. “I thought about my clients so much when I was stuck at home. It’s been hard not to see them.”
Her normal job routine has changed, as the restaurant industry must operate under strict new rule. Staff is reminded every 30 minutes to wash their hands. Booths and tables must be wiped down several times a day, whether they are used or not. Every customer must have their temperature read as they walk in the door. Rubio says the new rules mean the employees are working even harder than before.
Even with the reopening, she says her state of mind has yet to improve.
“There have been times my eyes get watery when my clients walk in because I am so happy to see they are well,” she said. “They want to hug me, and I want to hug them. I can’t accept this is our new reality.” Now, she greets with an elbow-to-elbow tap or by making the shape of a heart with her hands to say hello.
She said that a large part of her job, and the most rewarding, is the interaction with people. The new policies have made it impossible for her to greet her customers like she used to. Rubio said she is not afraid of contracting the virus, despite a rise in cases since the reopening. What she fears is the possibility of another closure or even more restrictions.
“This new way of life feels so cold to me,” Rubio said. “My clients, especially the elderly, come in for interaction, not so much the food. Now I have to wear this plastic face-shield and they have a mask on. It doesn’t feel the same.”