Mask with Me

Julie Lam
12 min readApr 13, 2020


My response to New York Times articleA Tragedy Is Unfolding’: Inside New York’s Virus Epicenter by Annie Correal and Andrew Jacobs

New York on Pause asks New Yorkers to flatten the curve by staying home. What about in-person workers of essential businesses? People who manage the parking garage. The pharmacists at CVS. MBTA workers. Fresh Direct and Amazon delivery crews. Cashiers. Bus drivers. Police. Firefighters. Reporters. Security guards. Doormen. Janitors. Volunteers at homeless shelters. Garbage truck crews. Airport and airline workers. They are all frontline people who need protection our country will not offer.

We need to have the workers’ back. Americans are getting laid off left and right as businesses shut down. Fretting about losing their jobs, people swallow their fear and work, pretending that COVID-19 is just a flu. That’s what the handymen, janitors and doormen in my building thought about the virus initially when I tried to warn them about the outbreak.

It took me a long time to convince the young doorman Ricky to take the respirator I bought for him, but I never gave up.

Busy working people don’t see the power of this virus because public awareness is not in their faces. Since a friend of mine lives in Wuhan, I am aware of how the epidemic started in the former epicenter. Before anyone in my circle caught on, I started posting about the epidemic on Facebook. I warned the headmaster of my son’s school about hosting a fundraiser benefit in March when the first community spread has just started in New York. I warned everyone about how 40,000 families cooked and shared their dishes at a potluck banquet led to a massive outbreak in the Bai Bu-ting Community of Wuhan. When my friends in Manhattan were fleeing the city, I told them how mass movement spread the virus from Wuhan to the rest of China. My warnings fell on deaf ears.

In my building, two workers are self-quarantining today. I wrote to warn the manager and the super in March when the number of cases were soaring. They ignored my suggestion for the workers to mask. Some of the workers want to wear masks but the building ran out of them and PPE (personal protective equipment) was on back order for the entire world. For many weeks, these frontline workers were left without protection.

Instead of waiting for the building manager and the super to respond, I bought from immoral online profiteers anti-viral spray and reusable sport respirators that take N99 filters. “You can’t be too careful!” I warned everyone when I gave them the gifts. I don’t mind that the life-saving goods cost a fortune. The men in my building remember me for the racks of BBQ ribs I enjoy making for them every Thanksgiving. They are family to me. I have to have their backs, or I can’t sleep at night.

My building’s porters, Brian Tracy and José Paulino, wearing the sport respirators I bought them.

As a writer, I have access to clinical reports shared by doctors who treated patients in China and Hong Kong — which is how I knew that this virus spread through saliva, air, surfaces we touch, and asymptomatic carriers months before the CDC and our government changed the public guidelines and finally starting to promote face covering.

This contagious virus is exposing the ugliness of social inequality and class divisiveness, not just crippling the medical system in America. In New York, healthcare is a luxury to some people. Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance are mandated to cover testing but not the treatment. According to federal data in 2018, 27.5 million Americans are without health insurance.

In New York, Gov Cuomo is trying to make all hospitals work together, to force the wall between the private and the public systems to come down, but is it really happening? While the upper class fled the city, the working class are hunkering down, working for food and rent, fretting about infecting their families and deaths.

In China, people refused to work without protective gear. The law that mandates masking protects the workers from exposure to the virus. Workplaces are required to provide hazmat suits in Wuhan during the lockdown. Guards are at the doors to check temperature to ensure safety of a working environment, even after the city has reopened.

My friend’s sister-in-law works at a Japanese supermarket in Wuhan. Even during the peak of the outbreak, as an essential business, the store has never shut down. Workers wore hazmat suits, goggles, gloves and masks provided for them. Everyone followed strict protocol to disinfect the store for hours every day. By law, regular citizens stayed home. There is no confusion about the need to social distance. For this pandemic, China guarantees coverage for testing, treatment, hospitalization and paid leave.

Not in America.

We pride ourselves as being the world’s richest country but we are relying on donation of medical supplies. Our medical workers, who are most susceptive to the virus, have to reuse masks, make gowns out of garbage bags and crowdfund for PPE. Doctors also got fired when they spoke out. We are no more transparent than China.

My building’s porter José lives in Queens. To protect his wife and two young children, he stopped going home. Afraid of infecting them, he camped out at his father’s home in Washington Height of Manhattan. His father works as an Uber driver — another high-risk frontline occupation.

On Sunday, April 5th, my son broke the plastic frame of his glasses, which he can’t see without. Though he doesn’t have to physically be in school, classes have resumed through Google Meet.

LensCrafters on 2050 Broadway in Manhattan on April 5, 2020.

Thankfully the LensCrafters’ opticians keep a store open for emergency needs. On the deserted Broadway it looked like that was the only retail store.

Toya, the manager at the store, bought masks for herself and her colleague when the company said the essential protective gear was on backorder. Everything my boy tried on was put in a box to be disinfected. The store took great care to wipe down the table after a customer left. Since they wouldn’t take walk-in, the doors were locked. Though I had fretted about my underlying health condition, I felt safe — knowing that the two professional opticians were taking serious precaution.

Toya told me that she normally had to go from bus to subway to get to work. Afraid of bringing the virus home to her two grown college children, she drives now. They were happy to see my son and I wearing masks and gloves.

“You have to be super careful right now!” Toya said. My son requires a strong prescription in order to see. His remote learning would have been impeded if Courtney wasn’t able to find a frame that happened to clasp the lens from his broken pair. To call Courtney and Toya my heroes really isn’t an exaggeration.

My son and Courtney, the optician at LensCrafters.

My friends from overseas ask why Queens has the most coronavirus cases in New York. The reason is that living in Manhattan is unaffordable, while some districts in Queens and Brooklyn and Bronx are melting pot of diverse cultures and where immigrants, minorities and most frontline workers make their homes. It’s also where you find people complaining that the unemployment hotline is either busy or dead. The older child is watching the toddler and siblings while a single parent works. They cannot afford quarantine or risk eviction. Underinsured or without insurance, they line up in front of the hospitals because not everyone has access to a computer or can video-visit with a primary physician online.

Since April 17, according to a news survey, 59 workers of the MTA, on top of 138 municipal workers have succumbed to the virus. In New York City, 27 members of the police force, 50 employees of NYC public schools, 58 building service workers, jail guides, paramedics, homeless shelter workers and housing maintenance workers have lost their lives due to COVID-19. The staggering death toll leaves out grocery store clerks and construction workers. The untested are also unaccounted for.

The New York Taxi Workers Alliance said 28 drivers had died. The vast majority of them are immigrants living in Queens. Elmhurst, Corona and Jackson Heights are densely populated and home to Indians, Bangladeshis, Nepalis, Chinese and Filipinos. This part of Queen is the epicenter of the epicenter. The infection follows the subway lines and explodes in the blue-collar communities.

Anil Subba, 49, a Nepalese-origin Uber driver, was infected by a passenger. He left behind a wife and three children that haven’t finished school. The family lives in a two-bedroom apartment on Elmhurst street and after losing the breadwinner is now struggling to meet their rent.

Inside Gold City Supermarket on Kissena Boulevard, Flushing, Queens, New York on March 23, 2020.

In Flushing, Chinatown, when New York City’s death count was still in two digits, Chinese Americans started wearing makeshift Tyvek suits and masks at work as a precaution. Seeing the results of the draconian measures in China, they don’t believe social distancing and washing hands is sufficient.

That’s why Chinese Americans across the country are pitching in, racing to replenish badly-needed PPE for frontline health workers. Since most of the world’s medical supplies came from factories in China, Chinese Americans’ connections to the motherland help remove red tapes and expedite shipment. The donation of precious N95 masks, isolation gowns and medical goggles arriving in New York and other deeply affected states are the result of Chinese-Americans coming together to crowdfund, source supplies and petition to the FDA and the CCP. Just getting two rival administrations to give the green light on a cargo flight route is no small feat.

In NYC, many low-income Chinese-American workers are involuntarily on strike, driven by fear of infection. They are frustrated by the American culture that stigmatizes mask-wearing and places individual liberties over common wellness. Nannies, drivers, cashiers, butchers, construction workers, even medical workers have simply quit their jobs and are staying home. That’s why Chinese supermarket owners shut down their stores in Chinatown, even though essential businesses are supposedly unaffected by New York on Pause.

Inside the New World Mall is a massive Chinese supermarket, a sprawling Asian food court, shops, a karaoke bar and restaurant on multiple floors. This mall, opened in the heart of downtown Flushing in 2011, has never closed for any holidays. (Photo shared on April 6, 2020)

Most Asians have vivid memories of the SARS outbreak that started in China. The experience taught them the need to mask to protect themselves against infection. Hong Kong doctors who survived the SARS epidemic in 2003 have tirelessly shared their studies about COVID-19 and how to prevent it, but their studies have been glossed over by the C.D.C.

Western scientists are now learning that the virus spreads through not just droplets and aerosols but asymptomatic carriers, which had been discovered through studies in Asia long ago. As a result, U.S. officials are slowly changing their recommendations. They maintain, though, that the point of the mask is to prevent a person from spreading it, rather than protecting the user.

“Face coverings are a new, voluntary opportunity for a unified national effort,” as said by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar in an April 3 statement. “Taking this step will protect our loved ones, our communities, and our country from the invisible enemy we’re fighting together.”

In our country we pride ourselves on communication, yet, our public awareness campaign for this global battle of survival relies on hit-or- miss social media and competing and conflicting news. For New York, Gov Cuomo relies on Fresh Direct to print flyers about life and death public health guidelines.

New York only started to include face covering on its official health guidelines on April 8, 2020. Gov. Cuomo’s newsletter provided a link to the flyer as shown. The newsletter indicated that Fresh Direct has agreed to print and distribute it along with its food deliveries.

The state government have multilingual public service campaigns in subways and on television regarding the need for social distancing. The problem is — social distancing doesn’t apply to in-person workers.

Mask is the best way to prevent the spread and the only way we can reopen the country safely. We need to end the stigmatization that only sick people wear masks. Anyone can be an asymptomatic virus carrier. We are racing against time we don’t have. New York alone has lost 16,162 lives.

On April 12, Gov Cuomo issued an Executive Order directing employers to provide essential workers with cloth or surgical face masks to wear when directly interacting with the public.

A screen shot from the New York State Government website

While that was great news, but we need to implement a nationwide policy — not have TV anchors and politicians sending disjointed messages that confuse the public. We cannot have one politician promoting one idea when another politician simply cannot wait to shoot it down.

Americans have lost the window to stop the spread because politicians and the White House and Fox News are irresponsible echo chambers telling people that this is a flu. Using the excuse of not causing panic, they are still downplaying the situation. No, we need to play it up.

Everyone is at risk, especially for first responders, health workers and the in-person workforce. Unfortunately, our country’s Labor Department has set only guidelines but not laws that can hold employers accountable. It’s reported that during the H1N1 flu outbreak, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration made C.D.C. rules enforceable. The use of face masks and other measures were mandated to slow transmission. But the Trump administration has declined to enforce masking.

Smithfield Food failed to impose safety measures even as hundreds of its workers contracted the virus. It was forced to indefinitely close its plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which is responsible for roughly 5 percent of the country’s pork production.

Farmers are dumping milk, letting crops rot and getting rid of livestock. It looks like we have excess food — but food prices are inflating, and the availability and varieties are dwindling. All because our workers are getting sick. The food supply chain is collapsing.

COVID-19 has already sickened over 9000 health workers. Our government needs to mandate employers to source and provide workers with protective gear. Our country’s death toll is reaching for 7 digits. We need to put the deaths in front of people so they will take it seriously.

The educated, working-from-home classes are warned by a plethora of scientific facts, while the less privileged classes have little access to proper information. Our society is broken — an unforgiving and discriminatory reality. Charity organizations rely on volunteers to take care of the homeless and the poor. The kids from poor families will go hungry without the to-go-lunch that needs to be picked up from a soup kitchen every day. The volunteers are serving the needy without protecting themselves.

Mask with me!

We are not staying home for others. We are staying home because the spread will not stop until we do. We need to promote masking for the workforce. Employers of in-person business operations MUST protect their employees!


Correal, Annie, et al. “‘A Tragedy Is Unfolding’: Inside New York’s Virus Epicenter.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 9 Apr. 2020,

Johnston, Katie. “As More Grocery Store Workers Die, Employees Call for Better Protection — The Boston Globe.”, The Boston Globe, 7 Apr. 2020,

Goldenberg, Sally, and Danielle Muoio. “Scores of NYC Workers Have Died on the Front Lines of the Coronavirus Fight.” Politico PRO, 17 Apr. 2020,



Julie Lam

Writer. Photographer. Founder. MaskTogetherAmerica & Mask with Us. Public Health Advocate.