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Inside Los Angeles’s Efforts to Vaccinate Street Vendors and Underserved Communities

Phone banking and community partners are key

Woman cooks at a pupusa stand in Koreatown’s El Salvador Corridor.
Woman works at a pupusa stand in Koreatown’s El Salvador Cooridor
Bill Esparza
Mona Holmes is a reporter for Eater Los Angeles and a regular contributor to KCRW radio. She has covered restaurants, dining, and food culture since 2016. In 2022, the James Beard Foundation nominated her for a Jonathan Gold Local Voice Award.

A COVID-19 vaccination pop-up clinic appeared next door to Grand Central Market this morning, designed to increase access to eligible groups. That includes food workers and street vendors, who can either book an appointment at one of the many pop-up clinics throughout the city, or simply drop-in to the Million Dollar Theater’s next event on April 15.

Working in the food service industry carries a high risk of exposure to COVID-19. An early 2021 UCSF study found that cooks, bakers, and head chefs were most vulnerable for COVID-19-related death in comparison to other industries, which is why the arrival of the Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and Moderna vaccines came as a relief to food workers. And while anyone in Los Angeles’s food industry had access to vaccines since early March, the City of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County prepared to getting the word out to the equally eligible street food vendors.

Vaccinating street food vendors required the cooperation between community groups and non-profits. Los Angeles’s favorite street food vendors, the eloteros, taqueros, bacon-wrapped hot dog merchants, or anyone who serves food from a cart or out of their home, often fly under the radar. These individuals may be undocumented, refugees, or seniors, and up to 80 percent are women of color. Many operate without an official permit, which can start at $500 and aren’t easy to obtain.

To make sure these individuals can secure a vaccination, the city and county are working with organizations like the Los Angeles Street Vendors Campaign to make sure they can access the right people. At a morning press conference in DTLA’s Grand Central Market held Wednesday, April 7, Mayor Eric Garcetti says these communities are wired to spread the word:

If I walk into Boyle Heights, by the time I get to 10 households and tell them we have a mobile clinic, that evening a thousand people know about it. It’s all about with word of mouth, people will talk. It’s more networked than if you’re walking into neighborhoods like Beverly Hills or Brentwood. We’re trying to use the networks that exist. The idea that people are hard to reach, I reject. You’re just not reaching them the right way.

The city and county also took an old-school, grassroots approach to accessing underserved neighborhoods, where street food vendors live and work. Officials don’t assume that Los Angeles residents have internet, smart phones, or laptops. So they started working the phones similar to political campaign phone banking. They hired callers to proactively target specific zip codes about available vaccination clinics, or even help book appointments.

According to Garcetti, zeroing in on the hardest hit zip codes was key. “We have all the phone numbers from our Emergency Alert System,” says Garcetti. “And we’ll push a text saying there’s appointments available right now from your phone, because folks are wired. So they get a text [that] says click right here.”

Councilmember Kevin de León emphasized there is no need to show any proof of citizenship to get a vaccine. The only identification required is a drivers license with a Los Angeles address, or consular identification card and proof that one works in the food industry.

Los Angeles still has a lot of work to do. In March, city councilmember Nithya Raman and Curren Price introduced a motion to shift street vendor enforcement by “reestablish[ing] a moratorium on enforcing and issuing citations for vending without a valid license or permit for the duration of the COVID-19 State of Emergency and for six months thereafter.”

In June 2020, a Garcetti spokesperson stated the mayor’s office would work with sidewalk vendors to “ease the burdens that vendors face.” Yet this change came three months after the city council passed an ordinance calling for increased enforcement from the Bureau of Street Services and the LAPD. But for now, the city is at the very least ramping up its efforts to get essential workers a life-saving shot.