Mourning the Food Workers Who Lost Their Lives to COVID-19

What was the moment when the coronavirus crisis became real to you?

For many people in the United States, it wasn’t until the middle of March last year — after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, the NBA suspended its season, Tom Hanks tested positive, and restaurants started closing their doors amid shutdown orders — that what seemed like a distant threat suddenly became a grim reality. For others, it’s possible the moment arrived a month earlier, when passersby began shouting xenophobic slurs at them in the street or avoiding their restaurants in Chinatown. Or for others still, perhaps it wasn’t until much later, when acquaintances and coworkers and family members started getting sick. Maybe it was the first hospitalization of a friend of a friend. A cousin or a neighbor who never fully recovered. Or the loss of a loved one, one out of hundreds of thousands in the U.S. who died.

What this pandemic has taken from us is both staggering and difficult to quantify. The more fortunate among us may choose to write it off as a “lost year,” a surreal but mundane state of suspension — devoid of the events and milestones that typically mark the passage of time — before life as we knew it resumes again. But for vast swaths of the population, the pandemic manifested in devastating, untold ways. Entire industries were ravaged; businesses shuttered; millions lost their jobs; families went hungry; frontline and essential workers risked their lives; schoolchildren fell through the cracks; people became isolated, frustrated, depressed.

That’s not even counting the losses for which we do have concrete figures: more than 28 million infections and 519,000 deaths, domestically. The problem with numbers so vast is that they become abstract. What do these tallies tell you of the people who died? Of the family and friends left in their wake, choking on grief and anger? Of the daughters and sons and grandchildren who couldn’t say goodbye to their loved ones before the end, who missed funerals and wakes held across state lines? Of the holes that each death leaves in the day-to-day lives of those still here — the aching absence of a nightly phone call, or another person to count in the lows and the blues, or a tight embrace after hours or days or months spent apart?

The numbers can’t fully encapsulate the love and pain and suffering tied to each loss; that kind of impact is immeasurable. But we can try, at least, to make some sense of this collective experience of trauma and mourning: in our memories, in our elegies, in the way we talk about those who we lost. Each individual story — out of hundreds of thousands — captures some essence of who they were and what they meant to the people who will always miss them.

What we lived through was not so much a “lost year” as a year of loss. Some things can be rebuilt, or at least made up for: celebrations, businesses, the economy. There’s no undoing the damage done to some bodies, the hundreds of thousands dead, the millions more whose lives were altered. It may be tempting, as we rush toward the bright horizon, to try to leave the pain in the past. But there can be no forgetting what happened here. Instead, we must remember all that we lost, so that we can work to find a better future. — Jenny G. Zhang


Miguel Torres

Man wearing sombrero giving two peace signs with his hands.

During dinner service, Miguel Torres was relaxed, joking with the other line cooks, calmly firing off order after order in the tiny New York kitchen at the Rockwell Place. During prep shifts, before the rush at the cocktail bar, Torres, ordinarily chatty, kept his head down, speaking quietly into his headphones. He used the time cutting onions, stripping herbs, and setting up his station to call his wife and two young daughters at home. Working long hours five days a week meant being away from his family often, but that didn’t keep Torres from finding a way to stay connected to those he loved.

In mid-March 2020, he became sick — and then sicker — and began struggling to breathe due to COVID-19. He passed away on April 11, 2020, at age 36, at Elmhurst Hospital. He is survived by his wife, Ariana Ventura, and his two daughters.

Torres is remembered by coworkers as someone who could cook “pretty much anything,” and as a man who never missed an opportunity to talk with adoration about his family. Born and raised in the coastal Mexican state of Veracruz, he was adept at cooking seafood, and was particularly known by friends and family for a sopa de mariscos he made for parties and big dinners, brimming with a variety of fresh fish, shrimp, and other seafood.

When, in 2018, chef Alex Sorenson was tasked by the team behind the Long Island Bar, where Torres had worked since 2014, with opening the Rockwell Place, he enlisted Torres’s help. “I was able to rely on him right away to run things when I wasn’t in the kitchen, to make sure that things were consistent and came out properly,” Sorenson says. He remembers Torres as a cook who always appeared happy, and spoke often about his beloved wife and daughters as he worked; it was important that Torres have Sundays and Mondays off to spend with them.

“He was frequently talking to his daughters, since he couldn’t be at home with them in the evening,” Sorenson says. “He occasionally brought them in early in the afternoon, when he was balancing school and daycare for his kids, and then his job. Sometimes he’d have them come in and sit at a table and read a book or do homework while he got started on his day.”

During prep shifts and dinner service, first at the Long Island Bar and then at the Rockwell Place, Torres cooked burgers and other American fare. But for staff meal, after the dining room had cleared of customers, he made spectacular Malaysian feasts. Torres learned how to make Southeast Asian dishes in the mid-2000s, working at Fatty Crab, a now-closed New York restaurant. By the time Torres was cooking at the Rockwell Place, it had been years since he’d worked the line at Fatty Crab, but he was still quick to whip up fried rice and noodle dishes for his fellow cooks.

When Torres started as a line cook at Fatty Crab, he met a dishwasher named Omar Bravo. The two were fast friends, swapping stories about their shared home country, and the paths they took to reach that kitchen on Hudson Street. “He pushed me to start cooking,” Bravo remembers. Soon, with Torres’s guidance and encouragement, Bravo was working the line alongside him. Over the years, as Torres moved from one restaurant kitchen to another, he and Bravo worked together again and again, natural partners on the line. Bravo remembers how accepting and loving Torres was as a friend and coworker. “He was very open-minded. And he was one of the first people that encouraged me to say, ‘Hey, I’m gay.’ He helped me come out the closet,” says Bravo. “I felt like he was my brother.”

Last January, after a brief break from professional kitchens, Torres started a new job at Pegu Club, a now-closed cocktail bar. Just after his birthday in mid-March of last year. Bravo remembers that Torres, who he ordinarily talked to nearly every day, stopped texting him back for almost a week, and when he did text, it was to say that he was very ill. Several days later, Torres’s wife called Bravo to say that Torres had been hospitalized. She asked him to pray for her husband.

“I still had the hope that he was going to make it,” Bravo remembers. “I saw him two weeks before he got sick. And then, I couldn’t see him anymore.” — Elazar Sontag


Hugh O’Neill

Smiling man wearing baseball cap in the front seat of his car.

When the pandemic took hold in the spring, Hugh O’Neill, the general manager at Cantina 76 in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, was worried: The restaurant had been open for two years, but had just started to turn a profit. Now, he was letting go of employees, picking up most of the work himself. Somehow, he managed to keep Cantina 76 running over the next few months, even breaking sales records with to-go orders. He managed to hire back most of the staff, thanks to strong sales and a Paycheck Protection Program loan secured by the restaurant’s owners.

Things seemed to be going as well as they could, but there were still problems. O’Neill’s wife, Shelby “Mendi” O’Neill, remembers seeing her husband upset in June because he was having a hard time getting customers — many of whom were out-of-towners drawn to the area’s beaches — to wear face masks when they picked up their food. Within a couple weeks of that incident, O’Neill tested positive for COVID-19. After a raging fever, headache, and bad cough, he seemed to be getting better. On the night of July 1, he suddenly could barely stand and had trouble breathing. Mendi drove him to the hospital, where she dropped him off. That was the last time she saw him.

O’Neill died on July 19, after nearly three weeks on a ventilator. He was 53 years old. He is survived by Mendi, their daughter, Asiling, his parents, Linda and Hugh, and his sisters, Kelly and Christine.

Although O’Neill spent much of his adult life in the Carolinas, he was born in Kearny, New Jersey, and grew up by the sea in Point Pleasant Beach. He loved sports — hockey, baseball, football, rugby — and learned how to lifeguard on the Jersey shore. Around age 20, he started working in restaurants, beginning what would become a 30-plus-year career in the food and beverage industry, including nearly two decades with Outback Steakhouse.

O’Neill even met his wife at an Outback. They both started working at the restaurant, located in Raleigh, North Carolina, on the same day in 1992 — O’Neill, as a bartender in training to be a manager; Mendi O’Neill, as a server. They started dating and, after two years, wed. Their 20-year-old daughter, Asiling, a public health student at the College of Charleston, was O’Neill’s greatest pride, according to his wife.

O’Neill was an overachiever, says Mendi O’Neill. “Anything he did, he wanted it done right.” That mentality extended to work, where O’Neill put in long hours and rarely took days off. As a manager, he didn’t hesitate to jump in and get his hands dirty, whether that meant washing dishes, bussing tables, or working on the line alongside his cooks. That dedication, in addition to a willingness to help and mentor his staff, engendered a strong loyalty, with several long-time employees following O’Neill from restaurant to restaurant, says Mendi O’Neill. The O’Neills considered those staff members family, and many paid their condolences at O’Neill’s wake.

In his few pockets of free time outside of work, O’Neill enjoyed driving around in his Jeep, playing golf, and going to the beach. He loved his dogs and his family, and he liked to help other people as much as possible. “All you had to do was ask and he would be there,” says Mendi O’Neill. “People counted on him, and he refused to let people down, even if he had to sacrifice something for it.”

O’Neill, whose grandparents came from Ireland and Scotland, called himself a proud Irishman. He dreamed of opening an Irish pub in Ireland one day, even while his family joked that Ireland didn’t need any more bars, especially with the “O’Neill” name.

Mendi and Hugh O’Neill had visited Ireland together, and they promised Asiling that they would take her there as a graduation present. Mother and daughter still plan to make the trip one day, although without O’Neill by their side, it will be bittersweet. — JGZ


Leilani Jordan

Woman wearing cap and gown and holding up a diploma.

Leilani Margurite Jordan took her first steps chasing a butterfly. It was Christmastime in Honolulu and Zenobia Shepherd recalls watching her daughter rise up in her candy cane pants and take off after the creature that had landed in the yard’s flowering honeysuckles. “She never stopped moving since then,” says Shepherd, who called her daughter “Butterfly.”

Jordan was born in Honolulu on October 22, 1992. The military family moved to California and then to Upper Marlboro, Maryland, where Jordan graduated from Dr. Henry A. Wise Jr. High School, and from Breakthrough Bible College & Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.

Jordan lived with disabilities, which especially affected her early in life. Shepherd says these conditions, including cerebral palsy and visual impairment, instilled in her a ceaseless work ethic and drive to help others. Jordan brought that tenacity to her work at a Largo, Maryland, branch of the grocery store Giant Food, where she worked as a courtesy clerk, offering customer service and assistance.

In March 2020, Jordan developed symptoms of COVID-19, but they were mild, so she continued going to work. “It was a drip, drip, drip,” Shepherd says, adding there was no mention at the time of PPE, social distancing, or other protections for front-line workers. On March 26, Jordan began coughing uncontrollably and checked into Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. She died there on April 1 at age 27. “She passed in my arms. Her last heartbeat. Her last breath,” Shepherd says.

In addition to her mother, Jordan is survived by her father William C. Jordan Sr., brothers William Cedric Jordan, Jr., Rishawn Turnage, and Charles Shepherd III, sisters Jeletalora Shepherd and Zy’on Shepherd, and great aunt Delores Weston Simmons, with whom she was especially close.

Shepherd has received calls from many of the people her daughter touched, and she often finds Jordan’s gravesite covered in flowers from strangers. At Giant, she would accompany elderly customers to the pharmacy section, where they could wait while she gathered items on their shopping lists. She would tell them, “I’ve got this,” which became something of a catchphrase, her mother says. “Some people go to work to get paid. Her last paycheck was $20.64 so that wasn’t the case,” Shepherd adds. “She wanted to work because working meant she could help people.” Jordan volunteered as a Sunday school teacher and regularly visited seniors in the Cameron Grove community, often walking their dogs or running their errands. She also continued her education with a sign language certification course at Prince George’s Community College, building skills to help people with hearing difficulties at church and work.

Jordan brought this spirit of service to her work at Giant, too. Jordan was an avid cook, contributing her favorite dishes to family gatherings. She was studying in the culinary program at Prince George’s in the hopes of combining her passions for food and community work in a new business, delivering healthy meals to seniors and others who could not cook. She was planning to employ workers with disabilities.

“Her story changed front-line workers’ safety,” Shepherd says. “She left a legacy to help people, even the small people.” — Nick Mancall-Bitel


Saul Sanchez

Man wearing hoodie holding up a certificate and standing in front of a cow statue.

Betty Rangel has a hard time remembering her dad, Saul Sanchez, without his Denver Broncos shirt. “We’re like, Dad, is that the only shirt you have?” she says. “We were on vacation last year and one of my sisters texted me. She was like, ‘Betty, did Dad not take a change of clothes? Because every picture has that shirt in it.’” He liked the way it connected him with people when he wore it, even when he traveled outside of Colorado. Someone would yell “Go Broncos!” and he would feel affirmed. So when he died of COVID-19 in April, the family buried the shirt with him.

Sanchez, at age 78, was the first of six workers at the JBS meatpacking plant in Greeley, Colorado, who died of COVID-19. He is survived by his wife, Carolina Sanchez; daughters Estela Hernandez, Beatriz (Betty) Rangel, and Patricia (Patty) Rangel; and sons Saul A. Sanchez, David Sanchez, and Alfredo Sanchez.

Born in Rio Grande, Zacatecas, in Mexico, Sanchez grew up in Juárez. His family was poor and he did what he had to do to support them — shine shoes, sell gum on the side of the road — and eventually got a job as a janitor at a location of the pharmacy chain Farmacia Benavides. But his older brother still encouraged him to educate himself. “He would study at night with his books and everything until he became manager of the pharmacy,” says Betty Rangel. “And then they made him in charge of all the pharmacies there in Juárez.”

She describes how people seemed to gravitate toward Sanchez, wanting to help him out. He married Carolina and had six children in Mexico, but Sanchez’s daughter, Patty, fell ill, and Sanchez moved with her to the U.S. seeking better medical treatment, getting a job through a relative at Rich Lawn Farms in Parker, Colorado. The rest of the family followed in 1976. “He went from wearing a tie to laying sod and working a very hard job. Never complained. Never complained and always told us we should be grateful for whatever opportunities we had,” Betty Rangel told the AP. Apparently that attitude softened his boss’s heart — he paid for all of Patty’s medical treatment.

Sanchez started working at Mumford, which became JBS, in 1989. In a photo Betty Rangel provided, he’s holding a certificate commemorating 30 years at the company, shifting jobs to wherever help was needed. He also got his GED. According to his family, education was of the utmost importance to him. Patty Rangel told the AP that while she was in nursing school she couldn’t afford textbooks, so he gave her money and insisted she buy them new. “He handed me the money, he goes: ‘Don’t worry about it, your education and what you’re doing is the most important thing. I’ll support you and what you need.’”

Betty Rangel says he was always reading, and especially loved reading about politics. He’d devour biographies of John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Abraham Lincoln; he kept up with the latest political news on his iPad; and he encouraged his children to think critically and independently about politics. Most of all, he loved being around his family. Betty Rangel recalls the last vacation she took with him and her brother, back to Zacatecas where Sanchez was born, so he could show them where he came from. “It was probably one of the best trips I’ve ever had,” she says. “We had such a great time. I knew he was happy and we were all happy.”

Providing for his family was everything, even when they encouraged him, at 78, to finally leave the workforce. Betty Rangel says he worked seven hours overtime the week he got sick with COVID, and 17 hours overtime the week before that. “He always wanted to check to see how much was going into savings,” she says, so he could make sure his family was taken care of. That empathy extended to everyone around him. Sanchez’s daughter Estela Hernandez says a man experiencing homelessness came to the funeral, remembering how Sanchez had given him a blanket and paid him to shovel snow. Betty Rangel says after he died, they got calls from strangers giving thanks for the impact Sanchez had on their life.

“He was such a role model to everybody there at work. People call me crying, saying, ‘We love your dad, he’s like my dad, he’s like my grandpa,’” with one person even saying how he helped their son deal with his depression and inspired him to go back to college. “My dad was all heart, compassion, loving, giving,” Betty Rangel says. “We just have so many stories like that … you can’t put a price on that.” — Jaya Saxena

Sara Wong is an illustrator with a big stubborn dog and more plants than she can handle, currently residing in Charm City.
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter and Emma Alpern

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