Coronavirus complicates safety for families living together

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Francy Sandoval poses for a portrait at her home in Melrose Park, Ill., Thursday, April 23, 2020. She works as a receptionist at a community health clinic which treats multiple COVID-19 cases. She has to isolate herself in the attic as soon as she comes home from work each day and is terrified of infecting her family. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

CHICAGO – At the age of 24, Francy Sandoval has unwittingly become the sole breadwinner for her family, after her mom, dad and brother — a nanny, a painter and a server — all lost their jobs in the coronavirus pandemic.

Her family needs the money, so the aspiring nurse feels she has no choice but to keep her high-risk job at the front desk of a suburban Chicago community health clinic treating many COVID-19 patients. But her home hardly feels like a haven either.

“Working during this time is not as stressful as coming home,” she said. “You were surrounded with patients who could have been or are positive and you might get your parents sick by just opening the door.”

Sandoval, an immigrant from Colombia, is among tens of millions of Americans living in multigenerational homes where one of the main strategies for avoiding infection — following social distancing protocols — can be near impossible.

The problem reverberates deepest in communities of color, where families from different generations live together at much higher rates, in some cases nearly double that of white families. Joint living also often intersects with factors like poverty, health issues and jobs that can’t be done from home, offering another glimpse of what fuels the troubling racial disparities of COVID-19.

“When you have generations in a household, some of them have to work, especially if they are in the service jobs or the retail or the grocery. They have to come in and out of that household,” said the Rev. Willie Briscoe, who leads a black church on Milwaukee’s north side, where the pandemic has hit hard. “You cannot safely quarantine.”

Families live together for many reasons — saving money, pooling resources, child care, elderly care or just culture. It’s a practice that’s been on the rise since the 1980s, particularly after the recession, experts say.

In the U.S., roughly 64 million people live in multigenerational family households, or 1 in 5 people, according to Richard Fry, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center. But it’s far more common among people of color: 29% of Asian Americans are in a multigenerational family household, 27% of Hispanics, 26% of African Americans and 16% of whites.