Councilman Says Many In Queens, NYC's Hardest-Hit Borough, Can't Afford Burials

Apr 11, 2020
Originally published on April 12, 2020 4:49 pm

New York City continues to be the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, and within the city some of the hardest-hit communities are minority neighborhoods in Queens.

In all, Queens has registered more than 31,000 cases of the coronavirus, according to data from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, more than any of the city's other four boroughs.

At least 7,200 of those cases have come from just a handful of neighborhoods in Queens: Corona, Elmhurst, East Elmhurst and Jackson Heights.

Councilman Francisco Moya, who represents those neighborhoods as part of New York City's 21st Council District, says his constituents are being disproportionately affected by the outbreak because most of them work in the hospitality or service industry.

"They're the ones that are delivering our food while, you know, we're safe inside. They're the ones that are manning the cash registers and stocking the aisles in our supermarkets," he said in an interview Saturday with NPR's All Things Considered. "They've been thrown into being this kind of front line support that has been keeping the city alive as we go through this process."

Moya says that 1,700 of his constituents have already died from the virus, but many in his district have been unable to bury their loved ones because they either lack the money to cover the costs, or the immigration status required for burial assistance.

"We have a lot of people in the Latino community that are undocumented. We also have people that are poor and working class that can't afford this right now," Moya said.

In effort to help more people, Moya said he's calling on the city to expand it's burial claims program. Moya said he wants to "bring some relief to families who will be able to afford to bury their loved ones, as opposed to us seeing the images of people in mass graves" on New York's Hart Island.

"This is what you see in in some war torn countries," Moya said, "not what you're accustomed to seeing in New York City."

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TOM GJELTEN, HOST:

New York City continues to be the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, and within the city, some of the hardest-hit places are minority neighborhoods in Queens - places like Elmhurst and Jackson Heights. I'm joined now by city councilman Francisco Moya, who represents those neighborhoods.

Councilman Moya, welcome to the program.

FRANCISCO MOYA: Thank you for having me.

GJELTEN: So we've heard about the racial disparity with the coronavirus, with it disproportionately affecting black and Latino residents. Those communities are overrepresented in the estimated death count according to the city's latest data. Have you seen that?

MOYA: Well, yeah. I mean, look. This is not nothing new for us. I think - you know, I've been on the ground since day one talking about how this has had a profound impact on the Latino community and the African American community for a few reasons. One, when that tidal wave just crashed on Elmhurst Hospital, I was on the phone with the CEO of the hospital talking about, what does that look like in terms of patient makeup? Seventy percent of the inpatients that came in those first few days were Latinos, all from the surrounding community.

The reason why is because the majority of them are in the hospitality or service industry. They don't have the ability to telecommute from home. They're the ones that are delivering our food while, you know, we're safe inside. They're the ones that are manning the cash registers and stocking the aisles in our supermarkets.

They've been thrown into being this kind of frontline support that has been keeping the city alive as we go through this process. But they have been the hardest impacted by this because they have to work. They have to be out there exposed to the elements, which has created this problem for us.

GJELTEN: Yeah. So what would you say right now are the primary concerns for people in your district? Do you think these fears and struggles that they have are different than what people in other boroughs are grappling with?

MOYA: Yeah. No, I think it's more severe. If you look at the statistics that are coming out for the borough of Queens, we are at close to 30,000 that have been infected by COVID. Seventeen hundred have died just in my district alone. And one of the major problems that we're facing right now is the inability for people to bury their loved ones because they lack the money, and they lack their status.

So here in New York, we have a program through HRA that provides burial assistance. But you need to have a Social Security number. You know, they give up to $900 for burial and cremation. But at the moment right now, we have a lot of people in the Latino community that are undocumented. We also have people that are poor and working class that can't afford this right now.

I'm asking - and I've talked to the mayor and the City of New York on working with the - our speaker, Corey Johnson, to expand that program so that we can bring some relief to families who will be able to afford to bury their loved ones as opposed to us seeing the images of people in mass graves at Hart Island. This is what you see in some war-torn countries, not what you're accustomed to seeing in New York City.

GJELTEN: So, Councilman, I'm sure you've worked for a lot of causes in your time there. It's really sad that the cause you're working for right now is to help people finance the burials of their loved ones.

MOYA: Look. It's heartbreaking, right? These people are my friends. They're my neighbors. They're my constituents that are crying out for help right now in a time where they can't even really grieve for the loss of their loved ones.

But, you know, this stemmed from a constituent that had reached out on behalf of a young child who lost their mother due to COVID-19. The father is on a ventilator - won't know if they'll make it through the next week. This child will be orphaned. They don't have the money or the ability to pay for the burial. The hospital is calling them saying, you have to pick up the body. They're not documented. It just breaks my heart to know that this is what's happening.

And I think as a city, we really need to push to get and expand the program that would open it up for New Yorkers who are poor, working-class New Yorkers who lack the affordability. The status shouldn't matter. You know, we are all in this together. I've reached out through my connections through the private sector to help with some of the costs. But my proposal is to get the city to change its policy, expand that program and open it up for the most needy and most vulnerable in our time right now.

GJELTEN: Well, keep up the good work, Councilman. Thank you so much for talking to us.

MOYA: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

GJELTEN: That was Councilman Francisco Moya. He represents New York's 21st City Council District, including his native Corona, Queens. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.