COVID-19 Heroes: Organization Raises Funds to Deliver 100,000 Masks to Bodega Owners and Essential Workers

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Dr. Debbie Almontaser, the co-founder of the Yemeni Americans Merchants Association (YAMA), told The North Star the organization immediately knew they needed to help essential workers in New York City combat the novel coronavirus.

What they did not know was how many members of the association, who are bodega owners, were scared of contracting the virus and did not know how to protect themselves. The organization took a poll and found a large majority of bodega owners did not have masks, latex gloves or hand sanitizer on hand for themselves.

“What we came to understand was they weren’t protecting themselves with masks or anything. It was business as usual for them because they wanted to make sure all of their neighbors they were serving were getting the food and equipment they needed,” Almontaser told TNS.

Since 2017, YAMA has been empowering Yemeni American merchants and communities through civil rights advocacy, education, business and social service support. In April, the organization launched the #NYCMaskMission to raise money to make sure essential workers on the frontline — like nurses, doctors and EMS workers — have the masks and tools they need to keep themselves healthy while working to serve communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are more than 2.1 million COVID-19 cases worldwide and over 662,000 cases in the U.S., according to the John Hopkins coronavirus resource center map. As of April 17, there are 222,284 COVID-19 cases and 12,822 deaths in New York City.

Almontaser said YAMA learned that at least 65 bodega owners and clerks tested positive for COVID-19. The organization partnered with a company from China that will bring 100,000 KN95 masks to help with their mission. Of the masks, 75,000 will be distributed to healthcare workers and other frontline workers in New York City, while 25,000 masks will be given to bodega owners.

“So many people are making sacrifices. Our doctors, our nurses, the FDNY and the NYPD are leaving their families and going out there to serve humanity. We have to take care of them in order for them to save lives. We have to work on saving their lives by providing them with the equipment they need,” Almontaser said.

“The bodega owners are secondary frontline workers who supply essential food. Many of our bodega owners are in food stricken areas where some people don’t have the luxury to get in a car and go to a supermarket.”

To raise the funds for the mission, YAMA has created an online fundraiser to get the masks to essential workers. As of April 17, the organization has already raised $14,499.

“When we started this a few weeks ago, we realized our most important frontline workers like doctors, nurses, EMS workers, the NYPD and FDNY were also in harm’s way and we could simply not ignore that. We know that in order to help our bodega owners to be safe, we needed to make sure our first responders in hospitals were equipped with the proper masks,” Almontaser told TNS.

Following their launch of the mission, YAMA partnered with NYC Cares, ATM World and ATM Access to help package and distribute the masks. With the help of the partnerships, the organizations will also be able to give out safety kits to bodega owners. The kits will include three to five masks, a box of latex gloves and a bottle of hand sanitizer. The supplies will also have instructions in Yemeni dialect for bodega owners to review to make sure they are following the proper protocols of social distancing, washing their hands, and other important health requirements before conducting business.

The safety kits will include hand sanitizer, three to five KN95 masks, latex gloves and instructions in Yemeni dialect to ensure bodega owners are following proper health protocols (Picture: Debbie Almontaser)

“Our bodega owners are taking huge risks by doing this because they care about their communities,” said Almontaser. “They’re the bloodline of these communities.”

Shortages of Surgical Masks

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a shortage of masks and medical equipment. There are reports of medical personnel reusing their N95 masks and a lack of surgical gowns. As of April 17, there are 9,282 COVID-19 cases reported and 27 deaths among health care personnel, according to a report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“The total number of COVID-19 cases among [health care personnel] is expected to rise as more U.S. communities experience widespread transmission,” the report stated.

President Donald Trump and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo also advised civilians to wear face masks in public because of the severity of the virus.

“Stopping the spread is everything,” Cuomo said during his daily briefing on April 15, according to The New York Times. “How can you not wear a mask when you’re going to come close to a person?”

How to help

To donate to YAMA’s online fundraiser, click here. Other organizations to donate masks to medical professionals include:

  1. The Afya Foundation

  2. Mask Match

  3. NYC Mask Crusaders

  4. PPE to NYC

To protect yourself and your loved ones, the CDC has released a guide on how to wear and create your own face covering to stop the spread of the coronavirus.


At the end of each story we publish about the coronavirus, we are now sharing the following information:

Coronavirus 411

Coronavirus, officially named SARS-CoV-2 but also known as COVID-19, is a novel virus that causes a number of respiratory illnesses, including lung lesions and pneumonia. The virus spreads easily from person to person through the air when a sick person breathes, talks, coughs or sneezes.

COVID-19, which originated in Wuhan, China, has spread to 185 countries. More than 2.17 million people around the world have become infected and more than 146,000 people have died. On March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a worldwide pandemic. President Donald Trump declared the COVID-19 outbreak a national emergency on March 13. Less than two weeks later, on March 26, the United States surpassed China in the number of COVID-19 cases.

Symptoms of COVID-19 can take between two to 14 days to appear. The CDC recommends calling your doctor if you think you have been exposed to COVID-19 and develop symptoms, including fever, cough and difficulty breathing. If you also experience persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion or inability to arouse and bluish lips or face, seek medical attention immediately.

In order to keep yourself and others safe, be sure to wash your hands frequently, practice social distancing and avoid touching your face. The CDC is recommending that gatherings of 50 people or more be canceled for the next eight weeks. Click here for information on how to prepare for a quarantine.


Maria Perez is the associate editor for The North Star. She has an M.A. in Urban Reporting from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She has been published in various venues, including Newsweek, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, City Limits, and local newspapers like The Wave and The Home Reporter.