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A Volunteer Bike Courier Talks About Delivering Food During The Quarantine

We know this term gets tossed around a lot, but Morgan L. Sykes is a legit hero. She’s just one of the volunteer delivery people working for Corona Couriers, a group of healthy, able-bodied cyclists offering free-of-charge drop-offs to New York City’s at-risk population(the elderly, sick, and people with pre-existing conditions) during the coronavirus pandemic. Morgan got involved with the organization after being laid off — like so many people around the country — from her job in a bike shop on March 17th, the second layoff she experienced in just under a calendar year (Morgan was let go from New York Magazine last February). She’s spent the rest of the quarantine riding as many as 50 miles a day across four boroughs — a specialist in long-haul deliveries.

Whether it’s groceries, medical supplies, or other essentials, the Corona Couriers offer no-contact delivery for nothing more than reimbursement of goods. They’re doing the vital type of community-driven work that makes social distancing effective and helps keep people safe. And they’re doing it out of the goodness of their hearts.

Started by Liz Baldwin, a New York City librarian who put out a call-to-action to cyclists around the city, the Corona Couriers were inspired by the couriers of Wuhan China. Like the Wuhan collective, Baldwin’s idea came to life in a hurry, without red-tape delays. With conversations about a federal bailout dragging and NYC’s official agencies drowning in new cases, it’s proven to be an excellent example of how communities can band together and respond to a crisis more nimbly than a large governing body ever could.

We chatted with Morgan over the phone about life on the job, the eerie, unexpected beauty of a near-empty New York City in spring, and how the city and country could do better to keep essential workers like Morgan safe.

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Could you just give us a little overview about the Corona Couriers?

Corona Couriers is a collective, volunteer-run mutual aid organization that is composed of healthy individuals here in New York City willing to help those folks who cannot leave their homes right now to shop for their groceries or go pick up prescriptions or what have you.

The situation here in New York has kind of popped off. It’s been a little crazy for a couple of weeks now. And so Corona Couriers was founded, I think, on the 12th of March by a librarian named Liz Baldwin. She works for New York Public Library and she was told that a lot of New Yorkers basically aren’t going to be able to come into work until at least next month to slow the spread of this virus. She is a long time cyclist here in the city, had never worked as a courier, but was inspired by the couriers of Wuhan China who delivered essentials to their neighbors under lockdown to keep everybody fed and safe and put out this call to action on social media.

From there, it just snowballed. A software engineer named Sasha Verma, she stepped in a couple of days later to organize an online workspace. Where we are now, we have I think over 200 volunteers, and then the core ops team, of which I am a member, is 15 strong.

At what point did you get involved?

I came on board because I got the news on the 17th that I was going to be laid off from my job. The second layoff I’ve enjoyed in the past… just over a calendar year. I got laid off from New York Magazine last February. I got laid off from my bike shop job on the 17th, and I put out a tweet being like, “yeah, let me know if you need help.” And the thing blew up. I mean, holy smokes, it was bananas. And it was bananas dealing with just like this experience of going viral during this particular time. So I was fielding requests for help, doing deliveries on my own following.

What’s special about our service, we provide free deliveries to people in need, reimbursement only. We have funds available to assist people who cannot pay for their food right now. We also do no contact deliveries. What that means is all of our couriers are required to sanitize their hands, monitor their own health and then when they’re on delivery, they must wear gloves, have hand sanitizer, vigorously sanitize their hands and their gloves, and also wear a mask.

When the drop off happens, it’s usually dropped off maybe in a stoop or a vestibule or something like that. I usually watch the person from a distance pick up their essentials to make sure that it goes to the right person. But there is no hand-to-hand, face-to-face contact to ensure everybody’s safety. That’s important to note because there have been some, I think bad faith, alarmist, irresponsible takes that have questioned the safety of these mutual aid efforts during this time.

I just saw that Corona Couriers was doing this and I was getting a little overwhelmed by all of the managing everything on my own. And so I linked up with Corona Couriers and here I am. I’ve been like most of the volunteers, especially the people in the core ops group — eating, breathing, living, pedaling Corona Couriers 24/7.

Could you describe what the vibe out there on the streets is like right now?

The vibe — it cannot be described. It is an experience. It gob smacks you riding around in the streets and there not being New Yorkers. New York is made New York by the presence of New Yorkers. So there is something fundamental missing by the lack of life on the streets. It’s a little creepy. It’s a little eerie. It’s a little weird. But I think there’s a lot of solidarity between the people that are out. Because pretty much everybody that is out right now are essential workers and we’re people that are doing something essential. So yeah, it’s creepy. But it’s still, you know, it’s springtime, so it’s also beautiful. We got an early spring here, for the most part, been warm — unseasonably warm. The warmest spring that I’ve experienced so far here in the city.

It is jarring. Full cherry blossom trees. But nobody, no people, no New Yorkers.

What are you doing to keep yourself safe?

I feel like my highest priority is not being a burden to medical workers or anybody else in my community right now. So I am sanitizing my hands, I’m wearing a mask when I’m out in public doing deliveries, shopping, and interfacing with people. Because still when you’re in the queue to check out your groceries, you still have to be close to people. And New York is not set up for social distancing, it simply is not.

So I’m just taking common-sense precautions and following the CDC’s guidelines and taking care of myself. But I am also somebody that is lucky to have insurance and have very good baseline health. So I’m not worried about my own health at this juncture. But again, I want to emphasize that’s not arrogance or a valorous endeavor or something, it’s just I’m taking care of myself.

How many deliveries or hours would you say you’re riding every day?

It really depends. Basically, I have ridden through four boroughs in one day. My dad is like, “you need to be tracking the miles.” I think I rode about 50 miles, but I’m not 100% sure. I kind of specialize on the team in long haul deliveries. I’m a former courier, I’m a former bike messenger, and I also have a background in endurance mountain bike racing. So I love to ride long miles.

So you’re equipped for this?

Yeah. This is not unusual for me. I am wired in a way that I recognize not everybody is. The longest day of riding is probably about 50-55 miles. But this is from the moment I wake up to when I go to sleep every day.

What has the response amongst the community been?

Well, something that’s a little bittersweet is — while I do try to watch to make sure that somebody picks up their food, I’m not always able to. Especially if I’m just dropping it in front of somebody’s doorway or something, so I don’t necessarily get to see somebody’s physical response. But through windows, through doorways, people have waved excitedly. A gentleman in the Bronx bowed to me, which I felt really moved by and humbled by.

I think that people are just grateful that we’re stepping in to provide a service where our government is not. I feel that there is a sense of gratitude from community members, from neighbors that New Yorkers are stepping in where our government is failing.

There’s been a lot of positive attention put on Cuomo because people are digging his press conferences. Well, where the fuck is the action? Where is it? People are being told to stay home. They’re being told, you know, it’s terrifying the information that we have about the transmission of this disease. How are people who are overwhelmingly laid off in a city that already at best stresses people out financially, how are people expected to feed themselves? I think that people are just really grateful because I think people are genuinely unsure where else to turn.

We’re partnering, we’ve been delivering to hospitals, delivering between nonprofits, food pantries, food banks, social workers. We are providing a service that is assisting what has already been there, if that makes sense. But there’s a question of like, well, how do you get this food and these essentials to people? Because I want to be clear, I’m not denigrating the incredible social network that’s already in place here in New York City, there’s great mutual aid that precedes all of this, but there is this like, well, “How do you actually get it to the people?” We are providing that. And that’s really cool.

How can New York City make your job safer and easier?

Oh man, I don’t know. Dane, let me gather my thoughts here. I am really on fire right now against the City — what can New York City do to make my job safer? I guess provide tests, provide PPE for medical professionals, provide hospital beds. The big issue here in New York that I think is everywhere is that people don’t know if they have it. And that is the big risk to public health and public safety.

I also am seeing what appears to me to be an increased police presence. I have a fairly cynical view of NYPD. I do not believe that they keep me, as a woman, as a cyclist, safe prior to the pandemic and they certainly do not keep communities of color safe.

I don’t know, I guess government just do your fucking job. The onus should not be on the citizens and mutual aid should not be expected to fulfill the role of government. You know what I’m saying? I don’t know. There’s just been a colossal failure.

What advice do you have for the rest of us who are bracing for an outbreak of cases similar to what New York is experiencing? A lot of people say the case in LA is a result of a false sense of security because we have such low case numbers in relation to other big cities. But at the same time, we’re also testing an extraordinarily low number of people. So, that’s likely a fake number, an artificially low number.

It’s not just if, it’s when and my advice, and of course I’m not a medical professional, I am simply a laid-off journalist, a laid-off bike shop employee, doing what I believe is moral and treating people how I want my loved ones treated, who I cannot be around right now due to the fact that I live in New York City and it’s unsafe for me to go home or check on my grandparents or any of these things.

My advice is social distance, stay home, watch your health and listen to scientists, listen to doctors, and remember that you’re being of service by staying home. Not everybody has to do something like what we’re doing with Corona Couriers. I think that’s important because we’re all struggling with our roles in this moment.

I think it’s important for everybody to remember that maintaining your own health and making sure that you don’t put other people at risk, that’s number one. But I would also say check on your neighbors, check on your community, watch out for the people in your community who are already marginalized, that the government has said are expendable, that they’re willing to sacrifice.

I would also say I think that hope is important. It’s so tempting and real right now to just go in a spiral with this insurmountable apocalyptic situation that we’re in right now. But I think it’s important also just to look and see just the heroism that neighbors are showing for each other right now, first responders, doctors, your postal workers, everybody is showing up. So I think it’s important to focus on love and on hope.

Do you think you’ll contract COVID-19?

I think it’s possible. It would be arrogant and ignorant for me to say that it’s not. I feel that as somebody without a lot of the preexisting risk factors that I personally am not very concerned about my own health or experience if I did get sick. But I am monitoring my health closely every single day and if I suspect that I am getting ill, then I will remove myself from service and completely quarantine.

In the meantime, my fear of illness for myself is superseded by the calling that I — and other volunteers with Corona Couriers — feel to put our good health to use to make sure that our at-risk neighbors stay safe.