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Portraits of Essential California Workers

Nicholas Mastrelli at his family’s store, Molinari Delicatessen in San Francisco. Stephanie Penn

July 2, 2020

With resilience and a sense of duty, these workers in the San Francisco Bay Area are performing vital services even as the pandemic and protests swirl around them.

Andreus Oliver, Budtender at Barbary Coast Dispensary

Andreus Oliver, a budtender at Barbary Coast Dispensary in San Francisco. Stephanie Penn

As customers walk into the Barbary Coast Dispensary in San Francisco, Andreus Oliver greets most of them by name.

The room around him is trimmed in a rich dark brown wood with plush red velvet sofas — a callback to the decadent vices of San Francisco’s red-light district in the 19th century.

Deemed essential services, dispensaries like Mr. Oliver’s have been open through most of the pandemic. Protocols for protecting workers and customers against the virus have become routine.

Mr. Oliver, for one, wears a mask at all times, and hands out fresh masks to any patron who shows up without one. In between conversations with patrons, who include patients who have cancer and epilepsy, Mr. Oliver washes his hands and sanitizes the countertops.

He is an unabashed cannabis advocate who seizes every opportunity to extol its virtues as a pain reliever.

“I love making sure people get the medicine they need.”

Nicholas Mastrelli, son of the owner of Molinari Delicatessen

Nicholas Mastrelli, son of the owner of Molinari Delicatessen in San Francisco’s Little Italy neighborhood. Stephanie Penn

It is noontime and San Franciscans are already lining up for their fix of Italian delicacies from Molinari Delicatessen. A fourth-generation family-owned deli in the city’s Little Italy, Molinari has been in business for over 100 years.

The use of face masks, coupled with scorching heat, is making everyone a little tense. It doesn’t take long for an argument to break out over what the government-mandated six-foot distance should look like.

“There’s a little more fear in the air,” said Nicholas Mastrelli, whose father owns the deli.

The deli is stocked with many kinds of pastas, olive oils, cured hams and wine. Its walls are adorned with photos of Mr. Mastrelli’s great-grandfather, grandfather and father. Only eight people are allowed in at a time these days, and customers without face masks are turned away.

Fiercely loyal to their deli, some customers are leaving bigger tips. One customer made Mr. Mastrelli a custom mask bearing the name of his deli and an Italian flag.

Paul Binion, bus driver at Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District

Paul Binion, a bus driver for the Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District. Aashna Malpani

In ordinary times, riders on this bus would have no reason to know that their driver, Paul Binion, is also a professional paintballer.

But during the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, Mr. Binon’s passion for paintballing was hard to miss. To protect himself on the job, he wore the thick winter gloves and mask he wears when paintballing.

Driving the 79 bus from Rockridge to El Cerrito is a high-risk undertaking, even though he sits in a different compartment from the passengers. It’s the end of the day that he worries about, when he must close the windows.

“Now, somebody could be coughing, sneezing or whatever the case would be,” he said. “He’d get all on the window. I touched the window to close it because that’s what I’m supposed to do. Or I get written up.”

His paintball moniker, “DidItHurt,” is well-known in Northern California, where he’s a Division 5 player for the Sacramento DMG. He loves the sport so much that he sends care packages to kids interested in paintball across the globe.

Ashley Grace Fisher, mental health nurse at Bay Area Community Services

Ashley Grace Fisher, a mental health nurse at Bay Area Community Services. Stephanie Penn

Fear of the coronavirus and racism have seeped into the multigenerational home in Suisun City where Ashley Fisher lives with her two sons, her mother and her 81-year-old grandmother.

She started her job as a nurse coordinator at Bay Area Community Services in March, just as the San Francisco Bay Area began sheltering in place. The nonprofit center provides mental health care and housing services to the homeless in the San Francisco area.

Because she is considered an essential worker, Ms. Fisher has continued to work through the pandemic, even though her mother and grandmother both have health problems that make them particularly vulnerable to Covid-19.

That, combined with the killing of George Floyd, have made this a particularly stressful time for her.

She worries about what will happen to her sons, aged 3 and 17, in a country where violence against Black men is so pervasive.

Her youngest son doesn’t understand the events of recent weeks, she says, but she’s worrying for him.

“The fact that I can’t protect him from the ugliness of the world is so sad.”

Betty Martinez, caretaker for the elderly at Alameda Social Services

Betty Martinez, an Alameda County Social Services caretaker for the elderly and disabled adults. Stephanie Penn

Betty Martinez works for Alameda County Social Services as a caretaker for elderly and disabled adults.

“I think about the older people that don’t have anyone to help them,” Ms. Martinez said. “That’s frightening to be like at a very vulnerable state in your life and not having anyone help you.”

Ms. Martinez goes through a lot of personal protective equipment, especially latex gloves. She has to change the plastic glove skin every time she helps someone bathe or when she cleans and cooks. Running out of equipment has been a constant fear amid a nationwide scarcity. At one point, she had to purchase masks out of her own pocket because the county was unable to provide her with the resources.

“I was able to get two for myself and also one for each of the clients I have,” she said.

Getting access to the P.P.E. has been even harder these days. The shops that Ms. Martinez frequented for medication, groceries and gloves for the elderly drastically reduced their working hours amid protests related to the killing of George Floyd.

“I understand the reasoning behind the frustration or why people are rioting, because it’s really hard when you feel like no one is listening to you, when you feel like nothing’s being done to change,” she said.

Ms. Martinez also had to forgo her time off because of a shortage of caretakers, working as much as 60 hours per week. Senior citizens are less likely to be trusting of new help — being already physically vulnerable, letting someone new into their home and giving them money to run errands on their behalf can be daunting, Ms. Martinez said.

The Rev. John De La Riva, priest at National Shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi

The Rev. John De La Riva, a priest at Saint Francis of Assisi. Stephanie Penn

In a small room of one of San Francisco’s oldest churches, the Rev. John De La Riva takes confessionals amid the Covid-19 crisis. His chair, propped right next to a window and facing the wall, is seven feet away from the person sitting on the other side of the room.

“I just listen to them,” he said. “I don’t come in contact with them except their voice from that safe distance.”

Father De La Riva is a Catholic priest at the Saint Francis of Assisi Church in the North Beach neighborhood. The church was established on June 12, 1849, making it older than the state of California.

Today, public Masses are held at limited capacity because of Covid-19. Father De La Riva has kept his church doors open for individual prayers and confessions, which he says are essential during this time. As workers nationwide file for unemployment en masse, and sources of recreation dwindle, people are left in a deep state of grief, and Father De La Riva makes himself available to serve. He spends time sitting on the front steps of the church, inviting passers-by to have conversations with him and making sure they know the church’s doors are open.

“People are in here and they’re praying hard. This situation is really shaking the foundation of many,” he said.

Production Staff & Crew

Aashna Malpani

Aashna Malpani ( 2021 )

Reporter, Photographer

Stephanie Penn

Stephanie Penn ( 2021 )


Deena Sabry

Deena Sabry ( 2021 )