By Sam Bojarski
Seated near the corner of Nostrand Avenue and Clarendon Road, as a throng of bystanders gathered nearby, Vamel Baron lamented the loss of life that coronavirus has caused in the neighborhood, particularly among older residents. Many have had to adapt to a new way of life.
“The hard thing is, people don’t invite others to their home anymore, so you have to do it on the streets,” said Baron, a Flatbush resident who worked as a taxi driver until February.
As spring turned to summer, general unease about the coronavirus has given way to a new way of life across Haitian enclaves — more outdoor living and virtual visiting.
For sure, people often congregated on sidewalks in the past when it got too crowded or too hot indoors, but social distancing has turned sidewalks into the primary option for many to visit with each other.
“[In] my neighborhood here, so many guys passed away,” Baron said, “mostly people over 60.”
Baron’s sentiment echoes that of many residents who once gathered regularly inside popular hangout spots, but no longer have that option so freely. Although residents voice a variety of attitudes toward the virus and mandated public health guidelines, most seem to be complying.
And, as COVID-19 concerns about in-person gatherings linger, many continue to use virtual platforms to stay connected.
Return to (new) life underway
While New York City has recorded more than 230,000 coronavirus cases, positivity rates hovered around 1% in August. The improvement has led to outdoor dining areas reopening in June, and Baron has frequented outdoor spots like The Loft BKNY on Nostrand Avenue, just south of Cortelyou Road.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, customers filled The Loft’s outdoor seating area nearly to capacity. They dined underneath three blue canopies set up on the sidewalk to accommodate social distancing requirements.
Nearby, Jack Laguerre received a permit to offer outdoor dining at his Little Haiti Caribbean Restaurant, on Church Avenue and Fairview Place.
“Basically I’m trying to bring something in this neighborhood to make people forget about the stress, where they can come and chill out, and even bring their own little drink,” said Laguerre, a Flatbush resident, who wore a mask inside his restaurant.
Laguerre lost two family members to the coronavirus. While he has a permit to offer outdoor dining, Laguerre said business has not met his expectations since he opened earlier this year.
Other restaurants, like Zanmi, at the corner of Nostrand Avenue and Hawthorne Street, offer outdoor seating as well. Zanmi hosts live music events on the sidewalk outside its building, during the evenings.
Before the pandemic, hair salons and barbershops offered not only grooming services but a venue for conversation and socializing to patrons.
“Not now,” said Julien Manseno, owner of Satsang Unisex, a Flatbush hair salon. “If there’s a walk-in, and there’s a barber available, then we do walk-in, but socializing hasn’t really been a part of this shop.”
Inside the shop, a hand sanitizer machine that also gives a body temperature reading greets customers as they walk in the door.
Manseno, a Trinidadian business owner who serves many Haitian clients, estimated that he has done about 50% of pre-Covid sales since reopening in late June during Phase 2. To comply with social distancing guidelines, the salon only allows three people at a time to sit on the long, leather couch in front of the store, Manseno said.
Customers, for the most part, must call ahead for appointments.
Elsewhere in the neighborhood, some people pay less heed to COVID-19 health protocols. They refuse to wear masks outside their homes, dismissing public health guidelines from government officials as overzealous.
Their non-compliance is why many residents are open to going online for social interaction. As is happening worldwide, people have flocked to digital methods of communication like Zoom, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Skype since March. Haitians and Haitian Americans are no different.
Yolette Williams, president of the nonprofit Haitian American Alliance, said she sees people using Zoom for both personal and work interactions. She uses Zoom to stay in touch with friends and family members and has even attended a funeral service in Haiti, virtually.
Lingering fears of COVID-19 infection have discouraged many people from socializing in person and pushed them to virtual versions of life, community members said. To protect senior parishioners, for example, Williams said some churches have opted to broadcast Sunday services via conference call or distribute a video recording through Whatsapp.
Older people and those who lack technology literacy have not adopted virtual tools as widely, however, because they are not familiar with that option, she said.
Laguerre, the restaurant owner, uses Zoom sporadically for business interviews. His friends prefer to use social media platforms like Facebook to stay in touch.