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Through this series, we examine the disproportionate financial toll of COVID-19 on Black and Latino communities, including how it has affected individuals, families and businesses.

As COVID-19 Cases Rise, Charlotte-Area Latino Business Owners Fear Another Shutdown

Manolo's Bakery Mask Painting
Maria Ramirez Uribe
A mural of “El Chapulín Colorado,” a famous Mexican comedic superhero welcomes customers and reminds them to wear a mask.

Está historia está disponible en español en La Noticia

Manolo Betancur started working at his father-in-law’s bakery in 2005. A Colombian native, Betancur had no experience baking “pan dulce,” but over the years he learned how to make this sweet bread and other Mexican baked goods. He eventually bought the business now known as Manolo’s Bakery in 2011.

Manolo Betancur
Maria Ramirez Uribe
Manolo’s Bakery owner, Manolo Betancur fears rising COVID-19 cases could lead to another shutdown just as his busiest season, the holidays, begins.

Located in a strip mall on Central Avenue, the bakery features a mural of “El Chapulin Colorado,” a popular Mexican comedic superhero, wearing a mask, welcoming customers and reminding them “heroes wear masks.”

Betancur has been strictly following health guidelines in the bakery during the coronavirus pandemic to keep both his customers and employees safe. He says he’s lost clients who refuse to wear masks or aren’t willing to wait outside as the bakery has an eight-person limit.

“We take all regulations very seriously,” Betancur said. “We follow the law, no one here comes in without a mask. If you don’t have one, we will give you one.”

The bakery’s floor is marked with stickers to ensure all customers stay six feet away from each other, and employees who have any symptoms or might have come in contact with the virus are required to stay home.

North Carolina reported the highest number of daily cases on Wednesday with more than 3,000 identified for the first time in the pandemic. Hospitalizations and the test positivity rate also rose this week.

These upward trends are not only alarming health officials but also Latino business owners in the food industry who fear, as the coronavirus pandemic worsens, their businesses could take a hit.

A new study from Stanford University found transmission of the virus is higher in minority and lower-income communities and the spaces they work and shop in.

David Grusky, the study’s co-author said in a press release that these numbers aren’t only disproportionate because of higher preexisting conditions or unequal access to health care, as previously assumed.

Grusky said, in part, that “the places that employ minority and low-income people are often smaller and more crowded.”

Manolo's Bakery
Maria Ramirez Uribe
Manolo’s Bakery has taken health regulations to keep staff and customers safe seriously. The bakery has an eight-person limit, markings on the ground to ensure social distancing and a requirement for all employees and customers to wear masks.

Because of this, Grusky says limiting the amount of people in these smaller businesses could help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

“We have a responsibility to build reopening plans that eliminate – or at least reduce – the disparities that current practices are creating,” he said.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Betancur provided food services to a local school, catered events and sold baked goods at his store. Betancur said he’s afraid the rise in cases could lead to another shutdown, forcing him to once again close his doors as he had to do in March.

“We were doing well until COVID-19 arrived on March 14 of this year,” Betancur said. “I will never forget that date. Around 60% of my business dropped.”

Betancur landed a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan and he was hired by churches and charities to make food for homeless shelters, which got him through the lean months of the shutdown.

Now he’s worried about the future. The holidays are typically his busiest season.

“The best season for a bakery is between Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year and Rosca de Reyes,” Betancur said referring to a cake that is often the centerpiece of the Hispanic Día de los Reyes celebration which signals the end of the Christmas season.

Betancur said without a pandemic he would have around 15 catering contracts and multiple orders for cakes and other baked goods by now.

“We don’t even have one,” he said.

Eunice Mercano - Arepas Grill
Maria Ramirez Uribe
Eunice Mercano, owner of Arepas Grill says she’s noticed fewer customers coming to her Venezuelan restaurant over the past few weeks.

Eunice Marcano, owner of Arepas Grill, is feeling fear creep back as cases rise in North Carolina. Much like Betancur, sales at her Venezuelan restaurant usually peak in the winter season as Latino families order dishes that remind them of their home countries to have at their holiday gatherings.

“It worries me. Because I’m positive and I try to think positive, but honestly, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Marcano said.

Marcano hasn’t received any orders for the holiday season. In a normal year, she said by Nov. 10 she would have already started getting calls.

Not only have the usual holiday orders been down, but both Marcano and Betancur have noticed regular foot traffic has also slowed over the past few weeks.

Like Betancur, Marcano has been strict with following health guidelines. All surfaces are constantly cleaned as customers come in and out of the restaurant, and every morning an outside cleaning service disinfects the place.

She says all employees wear masks and gloves, and those who work in the kitchen limit their interactions with customers.

Marcano has noticed fewer people visiting her restaurant in the past two weeks, and other business owners are telling her the same thing. She’s not sure if this is due to an increase in cases or if people are choosing to limit their outings.

Arepas Grill
Maria Ramirez Uribe
A cleaning company sanitizes Arepas Grill every morning. The restaurant has also limited seating and cleans all surfaces as customers come in and out.

“Maybe people aren’t thinking as much about going out to eat,” Marcano said. “Maybe they’re thinking, ‘Let's go out, but let’s go shopping instead.’”

Betancur has also seen fewer customers coming into Manolo’s Bakery this month. He attributed the drop in sales the first week in November to a lack of celebrations for Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, another important date for Latino bakeries affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

“There’s been fewer sales,” he said. “And if there’s fewer sales, it’s because fewer people are coming and that worries me.”

Betancur and Marcano say all they can do is keep following health guidelines and hoping others will help curb the spread of the virus. Betancur says his priority is keeping everyone safe.

“What I’m doing is right,” he said. “I’m protecting my clients, I’m protecting my employees, and I’m protecting myself.”

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Maria Ramirez Uribe is a Report for America corps member covering issues involving race, equity and immigration for WFAE and La Noticia, an independent Spanish-language news organization based in Charlotte.