Juan Gallardo arrived 90 minutes early at the mobile COVID-19 testing site at Kennett Area Community Service center and he wasn’t even the first in line.

He said he was eager to take the test, and urgently needed the results. The 68-year-old said his family’s livelihood depended on it.

Gallardo had been furloughed from his job at a nearby mushroom farm after his bosses learned that his wife had tested positive for COVID-19 a week earlier. Clinicians called to tell him he had tested negative, but without written proof to show his employers, he remained out of work.

“The issue is that no one knows who has it,” said Gallardo, who declined to name his employer out of fear of retaliation, but has spent 26 years working in Kennett Square’s mushroom industry.

Weeks after affecting the more densely populated areas of Chester County, the coronavirus is now tearing through its agricultural center, with cases steadily rising. The southern tip of the county was home to the highest per capita rates of new COVID-19 cases between May 26 and June 9, according to an Inquirer analysis of county data. And the top three municipalities in that group are Avondale, Kennett Square, and West Grove, the epicenter of the region’s mushroom industry.

In these communities, where nearly half the population identifies as Latino and most are migrants ineligible for unemployment insurance or benefits, this global pandemic threatens massive upheaval.

“This virus has taken people living on the edge and just pushed them over,” said Leah Reynolds, executive director of Kennett Area Community Service. “This health crisis is a hunger and housing crisis."

Agricultural workers from varying backgrounds say they initially struggled to get consistent information about the virus. Some were laid off or saw their hours reduced as farms lost money. Others who contracted the virus were thrust into homelessness, turned away from their housing by other workers fearful of becoming sick themselves.

Residents lined up for COVID-19 testing hours in advance during a recent stop at the Kennett Area Community Service food cupboard. Nurses working with the county health department administered the tests.
Bob Williams For The inquirer
Residents lined up for COVID-19 testing hours in advance during a recent stop at the Kennett Area Community Service food cupboard. Nurses working with the county health department administered the tests.

About six weeks ago, a patchwork of support groups that serve Kennett Square and the surrounding communities lobbied the county Health Department for aid. Together, they created new infrastructure for testing the population in areas they could access, sometimes on the farms themselves, swabbing workers as they finish their shifts.

Groups like La Comunidad Hispana, a nonprofit health clinic, and Kennett Area Community Service are hosting free walk-up testing sites, run by the county Health Department.

Reynolds’ group hosts its testing site next to the food cupboard it runs in Kennett Square, an intentional design that allows families in need to take advantage of both. Since March 13, her group has given food to 5,200 people, twice her yearly normal.

“I’ve heard people say, ‘This is mushroom owners’ fault.’ It’s not,” Reynolds said in a recent interview, as dozens lined up hours in advance for COVID testing. “It’s not the owners’ fault, not the workers’ fault. It’s the virus.”

Jeanne Casner, the director of the Chester County Health Department, said the mushroom farms undoubtedly play a role in this spike but “are not the sole contributing factor for increased positive coronavirus numbers.” She stressed that the businesses are deemed essential, and, like any large employer that has remained open during the state’s shutdown orders, have had to deal with the risk of outbreaks. And she commended the farm owners for cooperating with the Health Department to help mitigate the virus’ spread.

But data about the tests being done — particularly on the farms — are being closely guarded for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.

La Comunidad Hispana tested a total of 271 workers at mobile clinics on three farms in the Kennett Square area between May 25 and June 3, according to data obtained by The Inquirer.

Mariana Izraelson, the executive director of LCH, declined to provide specific data about how many of these workers tested positive for COVID-19, or even which farms are hosting the tests, saying that information was protected by the county Health Department.

Avondale had 44 positive COVID cases as of Friday, about 3% of its population, according to county data. Kennett Square had 150 (about 2% of the population), and West Grove had 44 (1.5%).

County officials, in turn, said they couldn’t provide specific data about employees of a certain industry out of privacy concerns. Izraelson said, however, that the majority of that sample had tested negative for COVID-19.

Casner, the Health Department’s director, said it’s undeniable that the county is seeing an increase in cases among farmworkers, especially given the close quarters in which they work. She also pointed out that the numbers are rising, in part, because of testing on the farms, which began only recently.

“There’s a lot going on there, and it’s not anything wrong,” she said. “It’s just this is how it’s evolving differently in the uniqueness of this community.”

During the five hours they performed the tests at KACS on June 5, personnel from the Chester County health department were able to test 135 residents for COVID-19. The results were usually returned in five days.
Bob Williams For The inquirer
During the five hours they performed the tests at KACS on June 5, personnel from the Chester County health department were able to test 135 residents for COVID-19. The results were usually returned in five days.

Most farm owners took early precautions, according to the American Mushroom Institute, a trade group representing 58 mushroom growers in Chester County.

They worked with multiple organizations, including the Mexican Consulate, to create and distribute literature about COVID-19 to their workers, according to Rachel Roberts, the president of AMI.

AMI has taken guidance from OSHA and other state and federal resources in protecting against the virus, she said. The network of community organizations has played a vital role, and the testing being done by LCH was welcomed by the group’s members.

Kathleen Snyder, who sits on the Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs of Kennett Square, said it’s been difficult to persuade farmworkers to use face masks, as some have the perception that using them makes them seem fragile, vulnerable, and not “macho.”

She added that the communities are flooded with misinformation about the disease. Many place more trust in remedies rooted in cultural medicine, rather than advice from physicians.

“Some think that COVID is similar to a cold, or that you can avoid it by drinking very hot lime tea or very cold water with vinegar while fasting,” she explained.

And even within the Latino population, there is a strong language barrier. Most Guatemalans speak a rare indigenous dialect called Mam, for example, and community groups have recruited their bilingual children to help distribute material about COVID.

Even with the efforts at spreading information, some workers are struggling under the weight of COVID-19.

Martín Reyes, from northern Delaware, visited KACS’ mobile testing site earlier this month, hoping it would help him return to work on a nearby farm. He and his wife were furloughed for 14 days, after his son tested positive. And though he and his wife had no symptoms, they needed a second test to prove to their employers they were fit to work.

The family was thin on savings and living in a tight space, which made their situation more tense.

“This pandemic is a terrible situation," he said, "because family is the only thing one can rely on, and now you can’t even trust your own family.”