Reginaldo Rodríguez, the manager of the largest and most popular Latino grocery store in the Jackson, Miss., area, has had to make significant changes since the novel coronavirus hit Mississippi. Valdez Market sits in the Country Club Village Shopping Center on Old Canton Road, where it took over the site after a Winn-Dixie closed, virtually straddling the border between the capital city and its northern suburb of Ridgeland. It is an area that has seen demographic shifts in recent years, particularly in the large influx of Spanish-speaking residents in the area.
“La Valdez,” as the business is colloquially known, is in a populous area of Mississippi with the most coronavirus cases to date. As of Sunday April 5, Hinds County just to the south of the grocer had an official count of 158 cases, but no deaths. Just to its north, Madison had seen 74 cases and two deaths.
Now, in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, Rodriguez has not only had to double down on ensuring the virus doesn’t spread in his grocery store, implementing rigorous hygiene management with merchandise and customer service and requiring employees to wear masks and gloves, but he has had to raise a couple of prices on vital items. One is hand sanitizer, and the other is masa harina, a flour Mexicans use to make tortillas.
“We raised it only because our suppliers also raised it,” he says.
The market remains open as an essential business under the governor’s new shelter-at-home executive order, but that does not mean business is what it used to be.
“Coronavirus is the biggest difficulty I have had to face since I have been working at Valdez Market during the last three years, because the sales have dropped a lot,” Rodriguez says.
‘Tomorrow I Don’t Know What Will Happen’
Rodríguez, 47, arrived with his family from Guadalajara, Mexico, and today lives with his wife and three children in Jackson. He prefers not to talk much about his past, but to focus on the challenges Valdez is facing. He wonders if the shelter-in-place order, which is currently scheduled for April 3 to April 20, will reduce the already low number of clients who have registered in recent days, but understands that this measure is for the good of everyone.
Rodríguez knows he is fortunate to work during quarantine while so many Latino immigrants have lost their jobs. He is grateful to be the manager of this traditional business that offers merchandise from different Hispanic countries like Guatemala, Colombia and Mexico.
The dynamics of the market and the dangers to the economy of a long-running quarantine concern Rodríguez. If the Latino immigrants who make up the majority of his customers are affected in their finances that will lead them to buy less in the store, which in turn will decrease the income of the business and in the end all will lose.
“We are lucky now, but tomorrow I don’t know what will happen,” he says.
The Mississippi State Department of Health says a large number of Latinos live in areas with higher numbers of COVID-19 cases. Those counties, MSDH said in an email to the Mississippi Free Press, include De Soto in north Mississippi just south of Memphis, Lauderdale County in east central Mississippi, Pearl River in southeast Mississippi, and Harrison and Jackson counties on the Gulf Coast.
Lack of Knowledge About Lockdown, Distancing, Protections
Many Latino immigrants, including in the area near “La Valdez,” have no good information about the outbreak and the hygiene precautions they must take to avoid getting the virus. Most the Mississippi Free Press consulted are not trying to keep social distance or wear face masks.
Many do not know many details about the lockdown, or about federal and state economic measures announced to help affected populations, like applying for the right not to be evicted for not paying rent during the quarantine.
Joaquin Bravo, 50, is a client of Valdez Market who was a busboy in a restaurant in Jackson until last week when it discontinued takeout and curbside services due to the lack of clients. Bravo, which is not his real name, says his boss promised to reinstate him when the quarantine is over and the clients return to the restaurant.
Bravo is not receiving any income, does not know what it means to apply for unemployment, nor has he heard that the government will distribute checks for $1,200. However, Bravo, who as an undocumented worker is not entitled to any of those benefits, has already solved his money problem in the short term.
Finding himself without his weekly payment, Bravo borrowed money to fulfill some of his obligations, including April rent. Bravo lives in an apartment in Jackson with five other immigrants from his country, Guatemala.
“I borrowed to pay the rent. All of us who rent the apartment paid already. … We are afraid of not paying because we are undocumented …,” he says. “We are afraid that they want to evict us.”
He is unaware of the governor’s short-term ban on evictions.
‘Great Responsibility As an Essential Worker’
Bravo lives two miles away from Valdez Market. He doesn’t have a car so he walks to the store about five times a week to supply his basic necessities. He hopes that this market remains open throughout the mandatory quarantine.
Rodríguez, manager of “La Valdez,” is proud of serving people who need it during this period of shortages, and is doing his best to keep the business well supplied.
“I know I have a great responsibility as an essential worker during this mandatory lockdown, so I do my best,” he told the Mississippi Free Press.
Rodríguez says the store will remain open during the shelter-in-place order, but says that closing the market is a latent possibility due to the high costs of operating it in the current circumstances, a possibility many businesses are facing.
“We will have to see how we are doing with the mandatory quarantine,” he said. “At first, customers stock up like crazy for quarantine, but then they don’t buy again for a long time.”