HOUSTON — Orders requiring masks and limiting the occupancy of restaurants and other businesses were lifted across Texas on Wednesday, a move that federal health officials and medical experts said was premature while the state was still in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic.
Businesses are still allowed to require employees and customers to cover their faces and limit the number of people they allow inside. Cities can choose to keep limits in place in municipal facilities, and masks remain required on federal property.
When Gov. Greg Abbott announced the changes last week, he argued that he was pushing back against the economic devastation wrought by months of limitations on movement and commerce. In a news conference at a restaurant in Lubbock, Mr. Abbott, a Republican, noted the hindrances for workers and small businesses.
“This must end,” he said. “It is now time to open Texas 100 percent.”
Hours before restrictions were lifted across the state, City officials in Austin announced they planned to defy the governor’s new orders and would continue to impose a citywide mask mandate.
The open defiance puts Austin, the state capitol and Democrat-led city, on yet another likely collision course with the Republican-led state Legislature following years of clashes on a range of issues, from homeless regulations to police funding.
A city council member Greg Casar, who co-sponsored an ordinance last year that authorized the city’s health director to establish Covid-19 public health mandates, said in a telephone interview Tuesday night that city officials believe their stance is “legal and it’s right.”
“If the state chooses to sue us, then it’s basically them going out of their way to undermine the health of Texas,” said Mr. Casar. “My hope is that they focus on vaccine distribution rather than messing with Austin and putting more lives at risk.”
It was not immediately clear whether the city can legally enforce its mask mandate, which calls for a fine up to $2,000 if violated. Mr. Abbott, in his decree last week, said no jurisdiction in the state can impose fees or jail time if residents choose to not wear a mask.
But in San Antonio, moments after Mr. Abbott’s announcement, patrons at Barflys removed the plexiglass dividers separating themselves from the bartenders.
At Barflys on Tuesday, an hour before the mask mandate was to expire, Amber Jowers, 32, was the bartender on duty. She welcomed the policy change. From now on, she will no longer wear a mask at work, she said.
“And we’re taking the sign down at midnight,” she added. “We have to get back to normal now.”
Barflys is a softly lit pub with a pool table, dartboard, and a slot machine. Metallica, Salt-N-Pepa, and the Texas Tornados play from the sound system.
On the smokey back patio, Sophie Bojorquez, 47, sat at a table with friends. She is a vaccinated nurse and a self-proclaimed anti-masker.
“I’m happy about the governor’s decision. The masks impeded the herd immunity we need. Now they want to vax so fast,” she said, shaking her head.
The patio bartender, Britt Harasmisz, 24, said that most of her customers didn’t wear a mask even before the mandate ended. And though her employer decided that Barflys would no longer require face covers, she said that she would continue to wear one while working.
“A lot of people have been vaccinated, Governor Abbott was vaccinated, but a lot of us on the front lines have not,” she said. “I’m going to wear a mask everywhere I go.”
The move to open Texas has faced intense resistance. The governor’s medical advisers have said that they were not involved in the decision. And federal health officials and some experts have raised concerns that the moves, especially repealing the mask mandate, could intensify the spread of the virus while the vaccination process is underway. Texas, which is averaging about 5,500 new cases a day, has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country.
Lina Hidalgo, the county judge in Harris County, which includes Houston, has argued that lifting the mask mandate means workers must be the ones to enforce rules in retail establishments and restaurants.
“We know better than to let our guard down simply because a level of government selected an arbitrary date to issue an all-clear,” Ms. Hidalgo, a Democrat and a persistent critic of Mr. Abbott, said in an op-ed column published this week by Time magazine. “I am working to clearly explain to the residents of my county that we will spare ourselves unnecessary death and suffering if we just stick with it for a little bit longer.”
Bert Rossel, 39, stopped in for a drink at Barflys on Tuesday evening. He said he had known the pub’s owner for many years and worked for him at one time. Mr. Rossel is in the insurance business nowadays. He said he believed that the pandemic had been hyped on social media as another distraction, or as he calls it, “the latest hot topic.”
“It’s survival of the fittest,” Mr. Rossel said. “My B.M.I. is higher than normal. Obese people are more susceptible to corona, but it’s been over a year. I would have gotten it already.”
As the evening advanced, the patrons at Barflys drank beer and downed shots, smoked and gossiped, enjoying each other’s company. No one paid attention when, at midnight, Ms. Jowers pulled the sign from the front door that read, “MASKS REQUIRED UPON ENTRY.”
Rick Rojas, James Dobbins and
When President Biden pledged last week to amass enough shots by late May to inoculate every American adult, the pronouncement was greeted as a triumphant acceleration of a vaccination campaign that seemed only weeks earlier to be faltering.
But the announcement was also a triumph of another kind: public relations. Because Mr. Biden had tamped down expectations early, the quicker vaccine production timetable conjured an image of a White House running on all cylinders and leaving its predecessor’s efforts in the dust.
The Biden administration has taken two major steps that helped hasten vaccine production in the near term. His aides determined that by invoking the Korean War-era Defense Production Act, the federal government could help Pfizer obtain the heavy machinery it needed to expand its Kalamazoo, Mich., plant.
Crucially, Mr. Biden’s top aides drove another vaccine manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson, to force a key subcontractor into round-the-clock operations so its vaccine could be bottled faster.
At the same time, Mr. Biden benefited hugely from the waves of vaccine production that the Trump administration had set in motion. To Trump administration aides, the new president’s crowing rings off-key.
“They criticize what we did, but they are using our playbook every step of the way,” said Paul Mango, the Trump administration’s deputy chief of staff for health policy and a senior official in the vaccine production effort then known as Operation Warp Speed. He said President Donald J. Trump’s team oversaw the construction or expansion of nearly two dozen plants involved in vaccine production and invoked the Defense Production Act 18 times to ensure those factories had sufficient supplies.
Beyond the nuts and bolts of production, the Biden White House has pursued a starkly different messaging campaign than Mr. Trump’s: underpromise, and then try to overdeliver. Mr. Trump routinely boasted of imminent achievements, including a vaccine rollout before Election Day, only to fall short.
Carefully calibrated goals “avoid losses,” said David Axelrod, the senior strategist for President Barack Obama’s campaigns in 2008 and 2012. The Biden administration, he added, “must have learned that lesson from watching Trump.”
Katie Rogers contributed reporting. Kitty Bennett and Susan Beachy contributed research.
Black and Hispanic communities are confronting vaccine conspiracy theories, rumors and misleading news reports on social media.
The misinformation includes false claims that vaccines can alter DNA or don’t work, and efforts by states to reach out to Black and Hispanic residents have become the basis for new false narratives.
“What might look like, on the surface, as doctors prioritizing communities of color is being read by some people online as ‘Oh, those doctors want us to go first, to be the guinea pigs,’” said Kolina Koltai, a researcher at the University of Washington who studies online conspiracy theories.
Research conducted by the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation in mid-February showed a striking disparity between racial groups receiving the vaccine in 34 states that reported the data.
State figures vary widely. In Texas, where people who identify as Hispanic make up 42 percent of the population, only 20 percent of the vaccinations had gone to that group. In Mississippi, Black people received 22 percent of vaccinations but make up 38 percent of the population. According to an analysis by The New York Times, the vaccination rate for Black Americans is half that of white people, and the gap for Hispanics is even larger.
The belief that doctors are interested in experimenting on certain communities has deep roots among some groups, Ms. Koltai said. Anti-vaccine activists have drawn on historical examples, including Nazi doctors who ran experiments in concentration camps, and the Baltimore hospital where, 70 years ago, cancer cells were collected from a Black mother of five without her consent.
An experiment conducted in 1943 on nearly 400 Black men in Tuskegee, Ala., is one of the most researched examples of medical mistreatment of the Black community. Over four decades, scientists observed the men, whom they knew were infected with syphilis, but didn’t offer treatments so that they could study the disease’s progression.
Researchers who study disinformation followed mentions of Tuskegee on social media over the last year. The final week of November, when the pharmaceutical companies Moderna and Pfizer announced promising results in their final studies on the safety of their Covid-19 vaccines, mentions of Tuskegee climbed to 7,000 a week.
The Los Angeles Unified School District and its teachers’ union have reached a tentative agreement to restore in-person instruction, clearing the way for a mid-April reopening of some classrooms in one of the last large school districts to bring students back in substantial numbers.
The deal, contingent on teacher vaccinations, extensive health measures and the county’s impending exit from the state’s most restrictive tier of health regulations, was announced on Tuesday evening in a joint statement by the district superintendent, Austin Beutner, and the union president, Cecily Myart-Cruz.
“The right way to reopen schools must include the highest standard of Covid safety in schools, continued reduction of the virus in the communities we serve and access to vaccinations for school staff,” they said. “This agreement achieves that shared set of goals.”
The agreement is subject to approval by the district’s school board and ratification of the union’s membership.
Under the tentative deal, elementary school and high-need students will be brought back in about six weeks, to allow time for returning school employees to be fully vaccinated, according to officials familiar with district negotiations. As middle school and high school teachers become inoculated, those students will then be phased in.
The agreement will not immediately restore instruction to pre-pandemic levels. At most, officials said, it will be a blend of remote and in-person teaching, allowing students to come into school for several hours a week in small, stable cohorts while still taking classes online. The last day of school is June 11, and the district expects to offer summer school as it did last year.
This month, California began immunizing teachers statewide, with Gov. Gavin Newsom setting aside 10 percent of new doses for school employees and channeling 40,000 doses specifically to Los Angeles school employees.
About 38,000 of the district’s 86,000 teachers and other support personnel have been vaccinated, given appointments or waived the privilege, Mr. Beutner said. Most of those have been employed in the district’s preschools and elementary schools.
In the governor’s State of the State address on Tuesday, Mr. Newsom said that “there’s nothing more foundational to an equitable society than getting our kids safely back into classrooms.”
“Look, Jen and I live this as parents of four young children,” Mr. Newsom noted, echoing the pandemic frustrations of many California parents. “Helping them cope with the fatigue of ‘Zoom school.’ The loneliness of missing their friends. Frustrated by emotions they don’t yet fully understand.”
He also noted that the state has committed $6.6 billion for tutoring, summer school, extended school days and mental health programs.
“We can do this,” the governor said. “The science is sound.”
President Biden will announce on Wednesday that he intends to secure an additional 100 million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 single-shot vaccine by the end of this year, with the goal of having enough on hand to vaccinate children and, if necessary, administer booster doses or reformulate the vaccine to combat emerging variants of the virus.
Mr. Biden will make the announcement during an afternoon meeting with executives from Johnson & Johnson and the pharmaceutical giant Merck, according to two senior administration officials. The rival companies are partnering to ramp up production of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, in a deal brokered by the White House.
In announcing that agreement last week, Mr. Biden said that the United States would now have enough vaccine available by the end of May to vaccinate every American adult — roughly 260 million people. But the senior officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to preview the president’s announcement, said the administration was trying to prepare for unpredictable challenges, from the emergence of dangerous virus variants to manufacturing breakdowns that could disrupt vaccine production.
The officials said that they expected the doses to be delivered sometime in the second half of this year, but could not be more specific. They said Mr. Biden would direct officials at the Department of Health and Human Services to negotiate the details with Johnson & Johnson, and that Wednesday’s announcement would be a first step.
The White House had initially intended to hold Wednesday’s event at the Baltimore manufacturing facility of Emergent BioSolutions, another company that partners with Johnson & Johnson to make coronavirus vaccine. But Mr. Biden canceled his trip after The New York Times published an investigation into how Emergent used its Washington connections to gain outsize influence over the Strategic National Stockpile, the nation’s emergency repository of drugs and medical supplies.
The White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, has since said that the administration will conduct a comprehensive audit of the stockpile.
Emergent officials will not attend Wednesday’s session. In explaining the change in plans, Ms. Psaki said that the administration thought the White House was a “more appropriate place to have the meeting,” which it is billing as a celebration of what Mr. Biden has called the “historic” partnership between Johnson & Johnson and Merck.
The administration says the collaboration will increase manufacture of the vaccine itself, and will also bolster Johnson & Johnson’s packaging capacity, known in the vaccine industry as “fill-finish” — two big bottlenecks that have put the company behind schedule.
Wednesday’s announcement is in keeping with Mr. Biden’s aggressive efforts to acquire as much vaccine supply as possible, as quickly as possible. Before Mr. Biden took office, he pledged to get “100 million shots into the arms” of the American people by his 100th day in office — a timetable that seemed aggressive at the time, but more recently has looked tame. He has been trying to speed it up ever since.
At the time, two vaccines — one made by Moderna and the other by Pfizer-BioNTech — had been authorized by the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use. In January, Mr. Biden said the administration would have enough vaccine to cover every American by the end of summer. Last month, the president announced his administration had secured enough doses from those two companies to have enough to cover every American by the end of July.
The recent addition of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which received emergency authorization in late February, opened a path for the administration to move up the timetable yet again. But Johnson & Johnson and its other partners, including Emergent, were behind schedule, which prompted the administration to reach out to Merck.
The European Union exported 25 million doses of vaccines produced in its territory last month to 31 countries around the world, with Britain and Canada the top destinations, just as the bloc saw its own supply cut drastically by pharmaceutical companies, slowing down vaccination efforts and stoking a major political crisis at home.
The European Union — whose 27 nations are home to 450 million people — came under criticism last week, when Italy used an export-control mechanism to block a small shipment of vaccines to Australia. The move was criticized as protectionist and in sharp contrast to the bloc’s mantra of free markets and global solidarity in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
The issue of vaccine production and exports has also created a bitter dispute between the European Union and Britain, which recently departed the bloc, prompting accusations that Brussels wants to deprive London of doses out of spite, in part because Britain is doing so much better with its rollout.
The tensions culminated in a diplomatic spat on Wednesday, after a top E.U. official accused the United States and Britain of implementing an “export ban” — a charge the British government vehemently denied.
Practically speaking, ban or no ban, Britain is not exporting vaccines authorized for use at home. The country has said that it would be prepared to give excess shots to neighboring Ireland but only after it was done with its own vaccination efforts.
The United States has also been hoarding doses, in part through a wartime mechanism known as the Defense Production Act which permits the federal government greater control over industrial production. President Biden last week promised each adult American at least one vaccine dose would be offered to them by May.
But information made public for the first time, recorded in detailed internal documents seen by The New York Times, shows that the European Union, far from being protectionist, is in fact a vaccine exporting powerhouse.
Of the nearly 25 million total vaccines made in the European Union that were exported from Feb. 1 — when the export mechanism came into force — to March 1, about a third, more than eight million doses, went to Britain.
And while the United States kept doses for itself, the European Union shipped 651,000 vaccines to the country last month, and made vaccines for others across the Atlantic: The country that received the second-largest number of shots made in the European Union was Canada, with more than three million doses last month, while Mexico received nearly 2.5 million.
A protest in Greece turned violent on Tuesday night as anger grew about tactics used by police officers who were enforcing coronavirus lockdown restrictions.
The clashes came on the same day that Greece said it was aiming to open to vacationers in mid-May. Later, the country reported 3,215 new infections, its highest daily tally since mid-November.
The protest on Tuesday was provoked after a video emerged two days earlier seeming to show an officer beating a man with a baton in the Athens suburb of Nea Smyrni. The man was apparently among several who had expressed objections to officers issuing fines to people in the square. The officer has since been suspended, the police said on Wednesday.
Around 6,000 people gathered in the normally quiet suburb on Tuesday evening to protest against police violence. The demonstration began peacefully but spiraled into violence after about 500 people appeared to pelt officers with firebombs. The police said that 10 officers were wounded, one seriously after he was dragged off a motorcycle and set upon. Sixteen people were arrested and were to face a prosecutor on Wednesday on charges including attempted homicide, possession of explosives and arson.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis appeared on television on Tuesday night, calling for calm and restraint. The violent turn of the protest has fueled debate in the Greek media about police tactics in enforcing the lockdown.
The Greek ombudsman said on Tuesday that reports of police violence had increased by 75 percent over the past year. Alexis Tsipras, leader of the leftist opposition party Syriza, referred on Monday to a “crescendo of police violence on the pretext of enforcing health measures.” Mr. Mitsotakis countered by calling Mr. Tsipras’s support for large rallies at the peak of a pandemic “the height of irresponsibility.”
The conservative government of Mr. Mitsotakis has urged Greeks to be patient for a little longer so that it can start gradually reopening the country’s battered economy without provoking a new surge in infections. However, public tolerance appears to be waning as government officials have been accused of flouting restrictions that thousands of ordinary Greeks have been fined for violating.
Mr. Mitsotakis himself came under fire last month for apparently disregarding his own government’s restrictions for the second time in two months, violating limits on public gatherings by attending a lunch at a politician’s home on an Aegean island.
In other news from around the world:
Mauritius went into a two-week nationwide lockdown on Wednesday, Agence France-Presse reported, the second time that the Indian Ocean archipelago nation has imposed such a restriction since the pandemic began. “We had no other choice but total containment in order to prevent the spread of the virus and protect the population,” Prime Minister Pravind Kumar Jugnauth announced Tuesday evening in a televised address. Only essential services will be operational from Wednesday, including hospital services and emergency relief. As of Thursday, supermarkets, bakeries, petrol stations and pharmacies will have limited accessibility. The country, which has a population of about 1.4 million, has reported 641 cases of the virus and 10 deaths.
Kenya and Morocco have approved the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, according to RDIF, a Russian sovereign wealth fund, Reuters reported. The fund, which is promoting the vaccine globally, said that 48 countries had now approved Sputnik V.
Everyone aged 16 and older living or working in Alaska is now eligible to receive the vaccine, Gov. Mike Dunleavy said on Tuesday evening, making it the first state to allow all of its residents access to the vaccine.
Alaska has fully vaccinated 16 percent of its population, the highest rate in the country, according to a New York Times database.
Adam Crum, the commissioner of the state health department, said, “If Alaskans had any questions about vaccine eligibility and criteria, I hope today’s announcement clears it up for you.” He added, “Simply put, you are eligible to get the vaccine.”
Mr. Dunleavy encouraged all “Alaskans that are thinking about” getting vaccinated to do so, adding that the vaccine “gives us the ability now in Alaska to far outpace other states.”
The announcement came as other states were rapidly expanding access to vaccines, with New York and Minnesota announcing on Tuesday that they would grant eligibility to wide swaths of their populations.
The pace of vaccinations in the United States has continued to accelerate, with about 2.15 million doses being given daily, according to a New York Times database. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Tuesday that about 61.1 million people had received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, including about 32.1 million people who have been fully vaccinated by Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccine or the two-dose series made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.
Some parts of Alaska have reached 90 percent vaccination rates among seniors, Governor Dunleavy said in a statement. In the Nome Census Area, over 60 percent of residents 16 and older have received at least one shot.
“We want to get our economy back up and running. We want to get our society back up and running,” the governor said. “We want to put this virus behind us — as far as possible, as soon as possible.”
The Pfizer vaccine is available to people 16 and older in Alaska, the governor said, while the Johnson & Johnson and Moderna vaccines are available to those 18 and older.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York said on Tuesday that his state would lower its age threshold for Covid-19 vaccine eligibility beginning on Wednesday, allowing anyone older than 60 to be inoculated.
New York State is also opening vaccination eligibility next week to a large number of public-facing workers, including government employees, nonprofit workers and essential building services workers. Those people can begin to get vaccinated on March 17.
New York will join a handful of other U.S. states that allow vaccinations for all people over 60; the majority have set their minimum age eligibility requirement at 65.
Mr. Cuomo, in an appearance in Syracuse, pointed to expected increases in supply from the federal government as the reason behind expanding vaccine eligibility.
Among the workers eligible to get vaccinated next week are public works employees, social service and child service caseworkers, government inspectors, sanitation workers, election workers, Department of Motor Vehicle employees and county clerks.
Appointments will open for those over 60 starting at 8 a.m. on Wednesday, Mr. Cuomo said. People over 65 became eligible for a vaccine in January.
Elsewhere, Gov. Tim Walz of Minnesota announced on Tuesday that the state would expand eligibility to more than 1.8 million Minnesotans this week, including essential workers in industries like food service and public transit, and people 45 and older with at least one underlying medical condition. The announcement is “weeks ahead of schedule,” the governor said in a statement, as the state is set to reach its goal of vaccinating 70 percent of Minnesotans 65 and older this week.
In Ohio, residents 50 and older, as well as people with certain medical conditions who had not yet qualified, will be eligible to receive a vaccine this week, Gov. Mike DeWine announced on Monday. The same day, Gov. Henry McMaster of South Carolina announced that residents 55 and older, those 16 and older with high-risk medical conditions and some frontline workers were eligible.
John Druschitz spent five days in a Texas hospital last April with fever and shortness of breath as doctors puzzled over a diagnosis.
They initially suspected coronavirus.
But ensuing lab work was ambiguous: Multiple molecular tests for coronavirus came back negative, but an antibody test was positive.
Doctors found that Mr. Druschitz, 65, had an irregular heartbeat and blood clots in both his lungs. They sent him home on oxygen, and ultimately did not give a coronavirus diagnosis because of the negative tests. He didn’t think much about the decision until this fall, when he received a $22,367.81 bill that the hospital has since threatened to send to collections.
Working with a patient advocate, he discovered that his debt stemmed in no small part from his diagnosis. Not having a coronavirus diagnosis disqualified his hospital from tapping into a federal fund to cover his bills.
Mr. Druschitz ultimately fell short of qualifying for multiple federal health programs that would have paid for his care if the details had been slightly different.
On the day the hospital admitted him, he was 64 years old, 23 days away from qualifying for Medicare. He had mistakenly terminated his private health plan one month early.
If his hospital visit had happened 24 days later, Medicare would have covered the vast majority of the costs.
Because he was uninsured, the hospital sent a letter less than a week after discharge offering to “help apply for medical assistance through various government programs.” Mr. Druschitz had not yet received a bill at the time. When it did arrive, six months later, he was told that offer had expired.
Another source of federal funding would have become available if the hospital had determined he had coronavirus: the Covid-19 Uninsured Program.
Created last spring, the program pays the medical bills of coronavirus patients who lack health coverage.
It has faced some criticism from hospitals and patients for being too narrow, and for covering bills only where coronavirus is the primary diagnosis. A patient with a primary diagnosis of respiratory failure and a secondary diagnosis of coronavirus would not qualify, for example.
The Health Resources and Services Administration, which runs the federal fund, does not have plans to change that policy. So far, it has spent $2 billion to reimburse health care providers for the bills of uninsured coronavirus patients.
Across the United States, thousands of actors, musicians, dancers and other entertainment industry workers are losing their health insurance or being saddled with higher costs in the midst of the pandemic. Some were simply unable to work enough hours last year to qualify for coverage. Others were in plans that made it harder to qualify for coverage.
The insurance woes came as performers faced record unemployment. Several provisions in President Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan, which passed the Senate on Saturday and is expected to pass the House on Wednesday, offer the promise of relief. One would make it a lot cheaper for people to take advantage of the federal government program known as COBRA, which allows people to continue to buy the health coverage they have lost. Another would lower the cost of buying coverage on government exchanges.
Many of the more than two dozen performers interviewed by The New York Times said that they had felt abandoned for much of the year — both by their unions and by what many described as America’s broken health care system.
“You never think it’s going to be you,” said Robbie Fairchild, a former dancer at New York City Ballet who was nominated for a Tony Award in 2015 for his star turn in “An American in Paris” on Broadway and who later appeared in the film adaptation of “Cats.”
Unlike other workers who simply sign up for a health plan when they start a new job, the people who power film, television and theater often work on multiple shows for many different employers, cobbling together enough hours, days and earnings until they reach the threshold that qualifies them for health insurance. Even as work grew scarce last year, several plans raised that threshold.
Musicians are struggling, too. Officials at Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, the New York local that is the largest in the nation, estimate that when changes to its plan take effect this month, roughly one in three musicians will have lost coverage.
Insurance plan officials say they were left with no choice but to make painful changes to ensure their funds survive because health care costs have been rising at rates that have outpaced contributions.
The delivery of restaurant orders and other goods has become a bigger part of daily life across the United States since the pandemic forced millions of people indoors. And in New York City — where the disease has taken nearly 30,000 lives — delivery workers have become a lifeline for people working from home and for vulnerable residents who have been warned against going outside.
On any given day, thousands of men, and a growing number of women, can be seen crisscrossing city arteries, transporting meals, groceries and medicine in plastic bags on top of their well-worn bikes.
But their visibility has also made them targets for criminals looking for a quick profit through robbery. The unemployment rate has surged into double digits and economic desperation has grown in the city’s less affluent neighborhoods, which had already been pummeled by the pandemic.
Stolen electric bikes can be easily sold on the streets for cash or dismantled for their parts, the police and workers say. The bikes can cost thousands of dollars and are vital tools for the workers, who often make less than $60 a day. Many have come to rely on the bikes, despite the steep price tag, because they can go about 20 miles per hour, enabling workers to travel farther and make more trips to increase their slim bottom lines.
The theft of electric bikes doubled during the first year of the pandemic, rising to 328 in 2020 compared with 166 the year before, according to police data obtained by The New York Times.
Investigators said robbers often use fraudulent credit cards to call in bogus orders and lure delivery workers to secluded locations. The delivery workers then are faced with two dire options: let go of the expensive bikes they need to remain employed, or risk injury and even death.
Ligia Guallpa, director of the Worker’s Justice Project, a nonprofit that represents immigrants working in low-wage jobs, said that many delivery workers did not report robberies and assaults. A large percentage of them lack the documentation to work in the country legally and don’t speak English fluently. Many fear filing a police report could lead to deportation.