September 30, 2020

The Virus Found a Crowded Houston Neighborhood, Sparing One Nearby

HOUSTON — The starkly divergent ways in which the coronavirus has affected neighboring communities in the Houston area — one rich and one poor — underscore how it is a magnifier of inequities.

To see how the virus can largely spare one neighborhood but upend one next door, look at Bellaire, with its tidy yards and spacious homes, and Gulfton, where apartment blocks pack residents in tight.

“We’re last in voter turnout, we’re last in census participation, but we’re first in Covid,” Edward Pollard, 35, a first-term councilman, said ruefully as he walked through his Gulfton district handing out free masks at tire shops and hair salons on a recent Sunday this month.

“Máscaras! Gratis!” an aide called out in Spanish, or “Masks! Free!”

“How much?” one tire shop worker replied, skeptically.

“Gratis!” Mr. Pollard replied.

The man took a bag of 10.

Image“We’re last in voter turnout, we’re last in census participation, but we’re first in Covid,” said Edward Pollard, a Houston councilman who represents Gulfton.
Credit…Michael Starghill Jr. for The New York Times

In the Houston neighborhood of Gulfton, more than 45,000 restaurant workers and housekeepers, immigrants and refugees live close together, mostly in shadeless two-story apartment blocks. At least 965 people have been infected by the virus in the ZIP code that covers the area, far more per capita than the city as a whole; 12 people have died.

The independent town of Bellaire, by contrast, feels suburban and is home to mostly white and Asian professionals, many with advanced degrees. In the 19,000-person community, there have been 67 cases, about a third of the per capita rate for Houston.

Juan Manuel Muñoz Soto lived with his family on the Gulfton side in a ground-floor apartment. Two adults and four children between the ages of 6 and 19 crammed into one bedroom. The family moved there in haste, after feeling unsafe in its previous apartment.

Mr. Muñoz, 64, worried about catching the virus, but he had to keep showing up to his job as a cleaner at a cancer hospital. He planned to retire this summer.

Then he got sick. Fever. Cough. Mr. Muñoz worsened and tried for days to get admitted to a hospital. He struggled to breathe. By early May, he was hospitalized with Covid-19.

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Updated 2020-07-21T11:44:22.798Z

“After he went to the hospital, I wasn’t able to sleep,” said his partner, a 43-year-old from Guatemala who requested anonymity because she and her four children were undocumented.

Then she got sick. She isolated herself. “I couldn’t talk,” she recalled, describing a low point in her battle with the virus. Two of her children also became ill. Over time, they all got better.

But Mr. Muñoz did not. He died on June 13.

The grief was immediately compounded by economic uncertainty. She worked only part-time at a laundry — not enough to survive on. “At times, I wake up at night thinking, ‘What am I going to do, my God,’” she said in Spanish. “It is very difficult. I pray a lot to God to give me strength.”

Credit…Michael Starghill Jr. for The New York Times

On the Bellaire side, fears have been more abstract. None of the town’s residents have died of the virus, even as 344,000 people in Texas have been infected and more than 4,100 people have died.

They discuss the risks and latest trends remotely, in Zoom calls or unfurling conversations on Nextdoor, a social media site, sharing articles from top area doctors or studying official coronavirus data on the county’s website.

“For all of our residents, it’s likely the case that their neighbors are health care professionals,” said Andrew S. Friedberg, the Bellaire mayor. “That has fostered more of an anecdotal discussion” about the virus and a “high rate of compliance” with state and county rules about social distancing and masks.

The town had among the highest levels of residents with health insurance in Harris County, according to a recent county health department study, and a low rate of those delaying care. In Gulfton, by contrast, roughly 40 percent of residents had no health insurance. The same survey showed that about one in 10 residents did not have a car in a city designed for driving.

“This virus is an equal opportunity abuser, that’s true whether you’re talking about Bellaire or the Gulfton area,” Sylvester Turner, the Houston mayor, said in an interview outside of a food distribution event at a nearby church. “But the resources people have to combat it are different. The infrastructure is lacking when it comes to communities of color.”

Credit…Michael Starghill Jr. for The New York Times
Credit…Michael Starghill Jr. for The New York Times
Credit…Michael Starghill Jr. for The New York Times

And Mr. Turner said the number of positive cases in Gulfton was almost certainly higher than the official count because so many residents are undocumented and fearful of showing up to get tested. “When you distrust, you stay away,” he said.

Yet even in the most protected spaces, the virus finds a way to spread. In the Bellaire mayor’s case, it was through his daughter’s gymnastics class, where another parent tested positive. Mr. Friedberg quarantined to be safe.

But unlike many of his neighbors in the Gulfton area, Mr. Friedberg could work from home, as could many of his constituents. Some decamped to second homes.

As the outbreak worsened, fewer ventured to Evelyn’s Park, in Bellaire, even on a relatively cool Sunday morning.

“Even this park, it has less people than two weeks ago,” said Sheng Zhang, a professor studying neurodegenerative diseases at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, who biked from his Bellaire home with his 9-year-old daughter and a friend.

The small park, with its outdoor cafe and patches of artfully tall grass, attracts visitors from around Houston to lounge, jog or toss a baseball — an oil financier with his 2-year-old daughter; a pastor on a “staycation” with his wife and dog.

Credit…Michael Starghill Jr. for The New York Times

A short drive away, the main green space in Gulfton, Burnett Bayland Park, brought out a smattering of residents that same Sunday morning, but few visitors from far-flung areas of the city, apart from teenagers in the skate park.

Two men sat talking on a bench under the shade of a basketball pavilion near an overgrown soccer field.

“There’s no work,” Ebenilson Jurado Rodriguez, 44, a landscaper, said in Spanish.

“There’s no work,” his friend echoed.

They lamented that, until very recently, many of their neighbors did not realize the importance of putting on a mask. Still, neither man wore one.

“I know some people who got it,” Fernando Romero, 30, said of the virus as he ate a breakfast quesadilla at a table nearby. “But I’m not worried about it. I think that they don’t keep the social distance, they go out with their friends.”

Mr. Romero worked in a bar until a surge of cases among young Texans forced Gov. Greg Abbott to order all bars to close indefinitely. “I’m OK right now,” he said. “We’ll see what happens.”

Much about Gulfton resembles the diversity of the neighborhoods in Queens that formed the center of New York City’s outbreak in the spring. Groceries cater to immigrants from India or Afghanistan or Tanzania. A centrally located Fiesta superstore attracts a steady flow of Hispanic shoppers who arrive by car or by foot.

“Everybody wants to buy masks,” Bilda Vasquez, the owner of the small clothing shop nestled outside the Fiesta, said through a floral mask.

The best sellers were the black masks. “For work,” she said. “Everybody wants to protect their life. People are more worried, more scared.”

Credit…Michael Starghill Jr. for The New York Times

Those with jobs are anxious to keep them, even if they begin feeling sick, said Sandra Rodriguez, a Gulfton native and community leader. “People can’t afford to stay home,” she said. “You say, ‘If you’re sick, stay home.’ Well, they say, ‘I can’t afford it, so I’m going to go to work sick.’”

Yet for many, the trouble has not been keeping a job, but finding another one after a sudden restaurant closing or office shutdown.

At an African market in another part of the neighborhood, Anaclet Rukata said that he had friends who had become ill, but that he worried less about the virus than about his uncertain future.

A 39-year-old refugee from Burundi, he lost his job with a catering company in the Chevron headquarters when the pandemic caused the first wave of closures. His 55-year-old mother, also a refugee, lost her job too, he said.

That day, he was working behind the counter as a favor to a friend who owns the market. “He doesn’t make enough money to pay me,” Mr. Rukata said.

And he had just received word by email that his unemployment benefits would be cut off at the end of the month.

“I was reading the email,” he said, “and thinking — what’s next?”