Laundromats are an essential service for families in South Central

By Alma Villegas
Customers at Crystal Coin Laundry watch televised news updates regarding COVID-19, Los Angeles, Calif., April 4, 2020. The dryers below the television contain stainless steel.

Many families in South Central live in residences without access to a washer or dryer, and depend on open laundromats for clean clothes during global health pandemic.

“I’m scared, but I have to do it,” said Luz Cruz, 35, pushing a stainless steel laundry cart that transports her clothes throughout the store. Cruz, a garment worker, said she worries about exposing herself to COVID-19, but is right now the most suitable person in her family to make necessary trips to the laundromat. “My husband stays at home with the kids because he has asthma.”

On March 19, Mayor Eric Garcetti declared a “Safer At Home” citywide order that prohibits outside public or private gatherings, except when applied to essential service operations. The mandate lists laundromats as an essential service and laundromat workers have been taking additional steps to sanitize used surfaces for customers who have not stopped needing to come in.

“What we are doing, and what I think a lot of laundromats are doing, is keeping all surfaces wiped down,” said owner of 78th Street Laundromat, Jordan Berry, 38. “Those are folding tables and especially machines which are made of stainless steel. We are keeping things as clean as possible.”

Staple items in laundromats such as washing machines, dryers, laundry carts, and in some cases vending machines contain stainless steel which according to a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, can carry the virus two to three days. Berry emphasized the importance of keeping all areas, especially those containing stainless steel, disinfected.

“We struggled at first because we couldn’t find cleaning supplies.” Brandy, the executive director of operations at Clean King laundromats said. “We were concerned about the 40 people who work within our stores, but we’ve acquired sufficient supplies.” Consistently wiping surfaces requires a large amount of cleaning supplies which Brandy said the chain was lucky to obtain.

Additionally, laundromat owners such as Berry have asked customers to practice social distancing by reducing the amount of time they spend in the laundromat.

“Obviously we are recommending people stay 6 ft. apart. We are asking that they don’t wait in the laundromat,” Berry said. “If they have a car or live close, we recommend they wait in their car or at home. It is not required, but we do recommend it. We recommend they fold their clothes at home.”

Customers are aware of social distancing practices, but say they are difficult to practice in crowded spaces.

“People come closer even if they don't want to,” Cruz said as another customer pushed a laundry cart past her and toward the dryers. She moved her cart closer to her side in the narrow aisle to allow the other customer to move through.

As a precaution Cruz is washing less frequently, about once every two weeks instead of once every week which she did before the citywide order took effect. She washes her own clothes as well as those of her husband and two children. Prior to the pandemic, Cruz said she remembers customers waiting in line for washers and dryers to become unoccupied.

“It’s kinda interesting. When everything first happened business went up. People were coming in with blankets and bedsheets,” Berry said. “Now it’s fairly back to normal, slightly slower because I think people are not changing clothes as much and are lounging around the house a lot.”

The flow of customers at laundromats is not as steady under the pandemic, but laundromat owners say their stores will remain open without cutting hours of operation.

“We have kept our 11 stores open in hopes that people will spread out,” Brandy said. The Clean King laundromat near Crenshaw and Jefferson boulevards is open 24 hours, according to Brandy, and gives customers an opportunity to wash in the early mornings or late nights when there is least traffic. “We are doing what we can to keep our employees safe and we are proud that we have not had to cut any hours.”

Customers at Crystal Coin Laundry can wash their hands to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Los Angeles, Calif., April 4, 2020. A paper sign reads "Corona virus. Wash your HANDS, FACE, CLOTHES"

According to Wilfredo Serrano, 58, weekends remain the busiest days at Crystal Coin Laundry where he has worked for four years. Working non-stop, he walked around the store with a bottle of cleaning spray and a cloth, wiping down counters, machines and the sink available to customers. “I always keep this place clean. It’s my job.”

The owner provides workers with masks, but he said he chooses not to wear one. “I can’t work and move with a mask on. I feel like I’m suffocating.”

Rosario Gomez has always relied on laundromat services, including the time she rented a place with a washing machine in disrepair. An important tube would break or there’d be no hot water for the washer, she said. In summary, she added, the appliances wouldn’t work even if they were on site. She needs open laundromats to wash her family’s clothes despite concerns.

“It scares me because many people do not take it seriously,” said Gomez, 43, as she folded her family’s clothes. Shirts, sweaters and pants of different sizes were spread across the folding table. “No one wears the masks. I look right now and nobody wears the masks.”

A stay-at-home mother, Gomez said she currently washes clothes for her family once a week. When her children were attending school, she’d often wash more than once a week because their uniforms would soil. She said she worries for them because they have been stuck indoors since the school district shut schools down on March 16.

“Sometimes I get up and I think it's a dream, that I'm going to wake up and everything will be fine,” Gomez said. “I hope they don’t close here because then I don’t know what I would do.”

An emergency order issued by Garcetti took effect today, and requires most workers providing essential services and customers using these services to wear face coverings.

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