AP Photo / Jessie Wardarski
En español | On the day New York City went into a state of emergency, Maggie Connolly made a run to her local grocery in Brooklyn's Carroll Gardens neighborhood.
Returning home from a store emptied of bread, eggs, meat, soap and toilet paper, she thought about her grandmother in Wisconsin and her late father, who was disabled.
"I was thinking how terrifying this whole situation would have been to him,” says Connolly, a 33-year-old hairstylist. “And I was thinking about my elderly neighbors, too."
That night Connolly posted a handwritten flyer on her corner offering to pick up groceries and medications for people at higher risk for coronavirus who are worried about leaving home. She listed an email address that named Trudy, her Brussels bichon puppy, “because I'm pretty sure most of my neighbors know her name more than they know mine."
Courtesy of Maggie Connolly
A neighbor spotted the sign and posted it on her social media feeds.
"I woke up in the morning and I had all these emails from people, both in my neighborhood and in New York, just reaching out, wanting to volunteer,” Connolly says.
As her sign went viral — Connolly has appeared on NBC's Today and Fox & Friends and heard from people posting similar flyers in neighborhoods in Australia, Brazil and South Africa — her local volunteer list grew. She's now directing New Yorkers who contact her to Invisible Hands and Brooklyn Mutual Aid, organizations that sprang up in recent days to coordinate volunteer shopping and deliveries for older and immunocompromised people.
Young people ‘stepping up'
Within days of its mid-March launch, Invisible Hands had amassed 3,000 volunteers serving all five boroughs and Jersey City, New Jersey, according to Liam Elkind, one of four young New Yorkers who runs the service. They already are laying the groundwork to take Invisible Hands national and have had talks with officials in Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other regions.
"I certainly didn't expect that when I started it, but what I'm recognizing now is that there is a real need for it, both in terms of people wanting to help and in terms of people being really scared to leave their home and get their own food,” says Elkind, a 20-year-old Yale junior now home in Manhattan on what he called “extended spring break."
So far, Invisible Hands has been able to make same-day deliveries, Elkind says. The group offers multiple ways for people to pay for the goods.
Volunteers must be healthy and come from populations at lower risk for COVID-19, the respiratory illness that this new coronavirus causes.
"If I go out and I happen to get sick, most likely I will get a fever and get some coughs. And that's not good, but I'll self-quarantine and most likely I'll be OK. But if one of these people goes out, it's really serious and potentially life-threatening,” he says. “There's really no question in my mind [that] the young people are the people who need to be stepping up right now."
Watch: Volunteers offer help during coronavirus outbreak
Social media startups
Like Invisible Hands, which Elkind says started with a friend's Facebook post looking for ways to help, Brooklyn Mutual Aid grew out of conversations on the community social network Nextdoor about running errands for at-risk neighbors, says Grace Linderholm, 25, one of the group's organizers. It has signed up about 30 volunteers with about 60 more pending.
Similar mutual-aid and community-care groups have mobilized nationwide, from Berkeley, California, to Washington, D.C., as an ad hoc, localized response to the pandemic. They mix online organizing via social media and shared spreadsheets with low-tech outreach, such as flyers and phone banks, and place a strong premium on safety and risk reduction.
So far, supply has outstripped demand. As of March 20, Invisible Hands had made about 100 deliveries, with about 200 requests pending, Elkind says. Brooklyn Mutual Aid has made a handful of runs.
"Our biggest problem is getting the word out to people who are housebound, especially people who might not know that these [volunteer] networks exist,” Linderholm says. Her group has a hotline for people to request deliveries — 929-314-0899 — and plans to build a presence on Facebook, the most popular social network among older users.
"We've all found ourselves in this insane predicament,” Linderholm says. “I think the emphasis people are really trying to send out is that we are all in this together, and your neighbors are who you can depend on and turn to right now."
Tips for safe deliveries
Running even simple errands for people at elevated risk for coronavirus requires “practicing the utmost caution,” says Grace Linderholm, founder of Brooklyn Mutual Aid. These broad guidelines are adapted from the group's safety training for volunteers.
• Act like you're already a carrier. A volunteer may feel healthy but could be contagious even without showing symptoms.
The best way to help neighbors is to have an abundance of caution. Volunteers who show any signs of illness or have been in recent contact with someone who does should stay home.
• Practice social distancing, especially on errands. Volunteers are told to stay 6 feet away from people at all times on the street and at the store. If the checkout line is crowded, they are to politely ask others to take a few steps back.
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• Wear gloves. “Every errand we do, we do in gloves,” Linderholm says. Volunteers have to put them on before leaving the house, and once they're on, they should not touch their face.
When they return home, they should remove the gloves safely without touching the exterior of the gloves with bare hands. If the gloves are reusable, they should be washed in soap and water for at least 30 seconds after each use.
• Disinfect, disinfect, disinfect. Volunteers are told to carry bleach wipes or disinfectant spray to use on store doors, shopping carts and self-checkout machines. If they don't have any available from commercial sources, they're told to make disinfectant spray from a solution of 60 percent water and 40 percent bleach or rubbing alcohol.
Anything they leave for a neighbor, be it pill bottles or groceries in plastic bags, should be sprayed and allowed to dry before it's dropped off. They're told to spray doorknobs and other surfaces touched while wearing gloves at the neighbor's house and their own.
• Have a delivery plan. Contacting the neighbor ahead of time to make a plan is important, they're told.
Minimizing face-to-face contact is the goal — leaving deliveries on stoops or doorsteps and knocking, ringing or calling to let recipients know their items have arrived. If a neighbor opens the door while during a dropoff, volunteers must maintain the 6-foot rule.