States are beginning to relax restrictions on business and activity, raising questions about the risks of allowing more face-to-face interactions as further COVID-19 outbreaks remain very much a threat.

But those risks don’t weigh on everyone the same way. Indeed, throughout the coronavirus outbreak, they rarely have.

Some of the first outbreaks resulted from cruises and business conferences. But once the danger of COVID-19 became clear, and people stayed home and stopped gathering, outbreaks became centered in venues where physical distancing is difficult to maintain.

Outbreaks occurred at prisons and nursing homes. Cases spiked not only among police officers, firefighters, doctors and nurses, but also among workers not usually thought of as “essential.” Low-wage workers at grocery stores, meatpacking plants, warehouses, nursing homes, prisons and child care facilities, among others, have kept going to work, and into harm’s way.

Without much in the way of paid leave or financial security, most could not say “no,” even if the working conditions were particularly dangerous –and even when their co-workers began getting sick.

Now, after weeks of well-followed stay-at-home orders, the areas with the highest per capita infection rates are all meatpacking or poultry-processing plants, or state prisons, all places where it is tough to keep people apart. Nursing homes and long-term care facilities continue to see outbreaks.

COVID-19 is simply not affecting all Americans the same way. A lot of attention has been given to the impact of the virus on people with underlying health conditions. But employment status, access to health care and the air quality of one’s neighborhood may be better predictors of infection and death rates.

No question, COVID-19 is hitting low-income workers the hardest, particularly black and Latino Americans and immigrants, because of where they work and live.

Those inequities will continue as businesses reopen to the public, even as most states have not met the benchmarks that public health experts say are necessary to reopen safely.

Even if they feel unsafe – if they have vulnerable people at home, or if their employer is not taking the necessary precautions – workers will have little recourse. They can’t stay home and still collect unemployment insurance, and most won’t risk reporting their employer and losing a job they need, particularly during a time of record employment losses.

Construction workers in Texas were some of the first “nonessential” employees in that state to be called back to work. Now there is an outbreak among those workers in the Austin area.

We can expect more of those kinds of outbreaks and mini-outbreaks as businesses reopen, many without the protective gear and practices necessary to stop a viral spread. There certainly isn’t the testing available to watch for such outbreaks.

It is a tough time for many of these workers, and others should keep them in mind when calling for a speedy return to normal, whatever that is.

Remember that while some people can work indefinitely from the safety of home, others cannot. While people who are shopping can go in and out of the supermarket in a few minutes, people who are working must stay for hours. While some have jobs that allow them to easily stay 6 feet or more away from their co-workers, others are close together as a function of their work.

Remember, just because we are all in this together, that doesn’t mean we are all experiencing it the same way.


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