- Josue Caceres, 25, survived coronavirus, including an 11-day coma.
- Caceres is the brand manager at Bronx Native, a retail store founded by his childhood friend Amaurys Grullon.
- Grullon, Caceres and other entrepreneurs in the neighborhood are fighting to keep their businesses afloat during the shutdown.
Josue Caceres remembers waking up in a hospital bed. He tried to get up and go to the bathroom, but he was so weak he fell and hit his head.
When he woke up from the fall, the doctor told him he had caught Covid-19, had gone into a coma for 11 days and was placed on a ventilator.
Although his family has a history of high blood pressure, the 25-year-old Caceres is otherwise healthy. He still doesn’t know how he caught the virus.
“I hardly went outside — I was taking this quarantine very serious,” Caceres said. “The few times I went out I had masks and gloves.”
It started in late March when Caceres started to feel ill. He thought it was the flu and he just needed rest. But his mother, Dorka, became concerned when he started to complain of chest pain. She thought something might be wrong with his heart and decided to call 911.
The EMT checked Caceres, said his heart was fine and decided against taking him to the hospital because he didn’t display symptoms of the virus. But his condition quickly deteriorated after the EMT visit as he started experiencing severe shortness of breath.
“I couldn’t breathe — I was literally just gasping for air,” Caceres said. ” I would just take a few steps and it felt like I ran a marathon.”
His mother and brother saw how ill he suddenly looked and called the ambulance again. That’s around the time Caceres went unconscious. His family wasn’t able to visit him while he was hospitalized and intubated due to protocols to prevent the virus from spreading.
Caceres’ lungs and kidneys weren’t functioning properly. During those 11 days, his mother Dorka feared for his life and would call the hospital constantly to check on his condition.
“I truly feel like if I was alone I probably would have died because I wasn’t aware of anything — I couldn’t do anything,” Caceres said.
‘It just hit home’
Caceres lives in the Bronx, one of the hardest-hit boroughs in the hardest-hit city in the U.S. More than 42,000 people have tested positive for coronavirus in the Bronx and at least 3,293 have died from Covid-19 as of Friday. Every day brings more death and infections.
People are fighting for their lives and their livelihoods as the virus rips through the borough and businesses deemed nonessential by the state have remained closed for eight weeks now in an effort to contain the epidemic.
The Bronx is particularly vulnerable to the public health and economic crises triggered by the virus. The borough has the lowest health outcomes in New York state and has high rates of asthma and diabetes. The number of people living in poverty is the highest in New York City at 27%.
Amaurys Grullon, 27, was tired of the stereotypes he always heard about his home when growing up. In 2016, Grullon founded a business called Bronx Native to showcase the borough’s culture and creativity. He asked Caceres, his childhood friend, to join the business as brand manager and help run the store.
“For me the Bronx is the most beautiful place on Earth — I wanted to change the narrative,” Grullon said.
The store, located in Mott Haven, sells apparel, accessories and acts as community space to the neighborhood, hosting everything from comedy to financial literacy classes. Business was good until the pandemic, Grullon said.
They had to close the shop’s doors when the state declared their business nonessential, and sales fell 50% even as the store has ramped up its online business to compensate, Grullon said. Then, as the business was in turmoil, Caceres caught the virus.
Grullon knew something was wrong when Caceres wasn’t responding to his messages. He contacted Caceres’ mother, who told him his friend had fallen into a coma.
“When I heard that news — it’s when I really realized this is serious,” Grullon said. “Josue is a young kid, 25 — younger than me. It just hit home, and when things hit home they hit differently.”
‘We’re in a very difficult position’
Caceres’ lungs started responding, his condition started to improve and he was taken off intubation. He survived the virus and is healthy now, but it’s unclear if Bronx Native will survive the shutdown. Grullon has applied for a small business loan through the federal Paycheck Protection Program to help keep the store afloat.
Grullon originally tried to apply through Chase, but he heard from other business owners he might have a better shot with a smaller community bank. He applied at Ponce Bank and also through PayPal. Unlike Chase, neither Ponce nor Paypal require applicants to have existing accounts, which has made it easier for many small businesses to apply.
Understanding the program and its rules, navigating the application and getting the right documents together in such a short time was frustrating. Grullon said he was totally in the dark when he first started looking into applying for funding a month ago. Bronx Native has since been approved for a $25,000 loan through Paypal.
Small businesses like Bronx Native initially struggled to get their applications processed amid the confusion and technical problems that plagued the rollout of the program, while a number of publicly traded companies who were clients of big banks were approved for loans before the first round of money ran out.
When the program reopened with more funding, $30 billion was set aside for smaller lenders. The idea was to get money to underserved communities and minority business owners. The $30 billion ran out in less than two days, according to Kenneth Kelly, chairman of the National Bankers Association, which represents minority-owned banks.
A government watchdog found minority and women-owned businesses may not have received loans because the Small Business Administration did not tell lenders to prioritize underserved communities as called for under the law.
Lisa Sorin, president of the Bronx Chamber of Commerce, said few businesses in the borough received money during the first round of lending. The problem, Sorin said, is the Paycheck Protection Program defines a small business as 500 or fewer employees. But in the Bronx most businesses have fewer than 10 employees, which means they are competing with much larger and better equipped companies for money.
More businesses in the Bronx started to get funding when the program set aside money for smaller banks, Sorin said, but it’s still not enough to meet the needs of the 23,000 businesses in the borough. Sorin is concerned the pandemic will force scores of businesses to close for good, ending a period of progress in which unemployment had fallen to historic lows and the number of businesses reached a four-decade high.
Many business districts in the Bronx are projecting retail vacancy rates as high as 50% by August, according to Michael Brady, executive director of the Third Avenue Business Improvement District.
“That’s taking us back to the mid-’90s when the vacancy rate was out of control,” Sorin said, “and that’s a very scary position to be in when we were in an upward curve for the borough.”
Grullon said he can breathe a little easier now that he received funding after weeks of trying, but getting approved brings its own challenges. PPP loans are turned into grants if borrowers use 75% of the money for payroll among other conditions, one reason why the loans are in such high demand. Grullon wants to make sure he has a plan in place to meet those guidelines so he doesn’t end up with a more than $1,300 monthly loan payment on top of his other costs.
When he was still uncertain if funding would come through, Grullon started a GoFundMe campaign with a goal to raise $20,000 to help pay rent, utilities and vendors. He said the community has been supportive, and the GoFundMe money acts as a cushion during uncertain times.
“We are in a very difficult position right now because it’s a very uncertain time,” Grullon said. “Everyday we’re trying to figure out ways to adapt.”
‘This was an older person’s disease’
The crisis hit home for Noelle Santos when she heard that Caceres, her friend, was in a coma. Santos owns The Lit. Bar, a bookstore and bar, around the corner from Bronx Native.
“We were told this was an older person’s disease and the younger people were just keeping the older safe,” Santos said. “Once our friend in his mid-20s got sick and he was in a coma for 11 days fighting for his life — that really shook us up.”
Santos knew the situation was getting serious before Caceres fell ill. She voluntarily closed The Lit. Bar a few days before the state ordered nonessential businesses to do so. Santos was worried about the health and safety of her customers after the state first told businesses to operate at reduced capacity to help control the outbreak.
“They were leaving it up to me to protect people and I didn’t feel confident in my ability to do that,” she said.
The Lit. Bar was open for just under a year before Santos closed its doors for the pandemic. The grand opening in April 2019 was the realization of her years-long mission to bring a bookstore to the Bronx after Barnes & Noble closed, essentially leaving the borough of more than 1.4 million people without a bookstore.
Santos has furloughed her staff of six. The Lit. Bar has an online shop, which helps keep up with some of the bills, but those sales are a drop in the bucket compared with the big overhead costs like rent, she said.
Santos applied for the Paycheck Protection Program through Chase Bank. She was approved and received a loan of about $18,000 but hasn’t used the money yet. Santos is waiting for clarity on the loan rules which continue to change, creating confusion and uncertainty among borrowers.
Like Grullon, Santos is concerned she won’t meet federal requirements to qualify for loan forgiveness. She’s particularly concerned about tripping over the rule that 75% of funds go to payroll, because she needs more of the money to cover her overhead. Santos is working under the assumption that she won’t qualify for forgiveness and will have a monthly loan payment after the six-month deferral period — on top of her other costs.
Money will be tight, Santos said, but she’s confident The Lit. Bar will survive. Grullon and Caceres are also optimistic that Bronx Native will make it one way or another due to the support of the community. However, their futures also depend on whether the neighboring businesses survive and the community isn’t left with vacant storefronts as the Bronx Chamber of Commerce fears could happen.
“All of the businesses on our street are restaurants,” Santos said, “so no matter how well I do, it matters how well the system works with our neighbors because that in turn affects our foot traffic.”
Caceres, for his part, is still trying to make sense of everything that has happened.
“I was very close to dying so that’s something I’m still processing,” he said. “I’m taking this experience as a positive one to appreciate the little things.“
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