Andy Arias
Andy Arias Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

Update 4/13: The city’s hotline for home-bound residents to call if they’re in need of groceries or other essentials is 1-888-349-8323. It launched April 13.

Update 4/15: This story has been updated with a new source and additional reporting. 

Andy Arias uses a manual wheelchair to move through life. His hands regularly touch wheels that also touch the ground. “The idea of me staying safe even with gloves and a mask would be super challenging,” he says. “I can’t leave my house and take the risk. It’s like walking around with rubber soles on your hands. How do you not expose yourself?”

He hasn’t left his Maryland apartment since March 15 and has been getting food from grocery delivery services, plus a weekly fast food treat from either Taco Bell or McDonald’s via Postmates.

Arias, who lives alone, depended on Amazon Fresh delivery even before the COVID-19 public health crisis made it unsafe to leave home. “It’s physically challenging for me to carry more than a bag or two,” he says, adding that it would cost about $17 an hour to hire an aide to do his shopping for him. 

But he says ever since March 13, it’s been much more difficult to secure a delivery slot. The city declared a state of emergency on March 11, catalyzing a mad dash for groceries as Washingtonians prepared to stay home. 

He’s not alone. Other D.C. area residents with disabilities report having to wait up to two weeks to get groceries delivered through services like Amazon Fresh, Instacart, and Peapod. They’ve stayed up late or set alarms for odd hours to try to increase their chances of securing a coveted delivery time.

Many D.C. residents, in order to avoid contracting or spreading the virus, have suddenly started getting their groceries delivered, something residents with disabilities have relied on since the services launched. An order Mayor Muriel Bowserissued on April 8 imposed new rules for grocery stores, making shopping simultaneously safer and more daunting. Stores must limit how many shoppers can enter at a time; require customers to wear face coverings; and make their aisles one-way. The order also tells grocers to “encourage the use of online shopping and curbside or home delivery.” 

“What we’ve seen is long delivery times,” says Arlington resident Mark Reumann. “And when you get a delivery, you’re not guaranteed to get everything you order. I probably got one-third of my order last time.” 

Reumann is blind and under the current circumstances he spends much of his time “on the hunt for groceries.” He checks the sites every couple of hours and wishes services like Peapod and Instacart would automatically notify users when new slots become available. 

Before COVID-19, Reumann would sometimes do his own shopping, but that isn’t feasible now. “If you’re blind you can’t socially distance,” he says. It’s hard to tell if others are within six feet and he can’t see the lines customers are supposed to wait behind to check out. “You need help from store employees. You’re risking yourself, you’re risking them,” he adds. On top of that, there’s the challenge of getting to the store; driving isn’t an option and Reumann considers public transportation risky.

Alec Frazier also doesn’t drive. The Takoma Park resident has Sensory Processing Disorder, which makes getting behind the wheel challenging. “At one point I counted. I had 15 disabilities,” he says. “I’m not even going to try driving.”

If it were up to him, Frazier would solely rely on grocery delivery services. He’s an avid Instacart user, but says that the service has become less reliable lately, with wait times of up to four days. Much of what he selects online hasn’t been available in the store, and he also struggles to communicate with Instacart drivers who don’t follow his written instructions describing how to enter his living complex.

But Frazier’s biggest issue with Instacart is that he can’t pay using his SNAP benefits. Before COVID-19, it mattered less because he only received $77 a month through the federal program. He recently found out that his benefits temporarily increased to $194 a month through June. He has to visit stores in person to redeem them. Using public transportation is difficult if there’s no bench at the bus stop, and once Frazier loads his grocery bags, he typically hails a Lyft. Both methods of transit can leave him exposed to the coronavirus.

Frazier has thought seriously about how grocery delivery services can improve during a pandemic. “I have this idea that you can list yourself as disabled on a food-buying app so they prioritize your shopping,” he says. “They know that you genuinely can’t leave the house or you can’t drive.” 

Arias also wonders if grocery delivery services could prioritize those with the greatest need by adding a box homebound customers with disabilities or immunodeficiencies could check. “That would be the best thing, If they would be willing to do that temporarily,” he says. “If you’re going to provide online services, especially in a pandemic, you should be thinking about the most vulnerable people first.” 

One in four U.S. adults—61 million people—has a disability, according to a 2018 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. The most common disability type, mobility, affects one in seven adults. As of 2017, there were at least 75,783 people with disabilities living in D.C. 

Asked about the possibility of giving priority to customers who have disabilities or who are immunocompromised, Instacart and Amazon supplied non-committal answers. Peapod and FreshDirect did not immediately respond. 

“We continue to be focused on providing an essential service to as many customers as possible, including those who are most vulnerable,” an Amazon spokesperson tells City Paper.  “We are working hard to identify ways to deliver groceries to more customers, like adding more delivery windows throughout the day.” Pressed again about whether people with disabilities could receive special consideration, the spokesperson responded, “We are focused on increasing availability for all customers.” 

Instacart tells City Paperthat the company is “constantly evaluating our service and are in close contact with our more than 350 retail partners across North America to ensure we’re providing accessible and affordable grocery delivery for all those who need it.” 

Montgomery County resident Cara Liebowitz, who uses a wheelchair, believes guaranteed grocery delivery slots are a good idea in theory, but questions how implementation would work. “It would have to be based on self-reporting,” she says. 

Liebowitz, who’s 27, left the D.C. area and is staying with her parents in New York until COVID-19 runs its course. “I know if I had stayed in D.C., I would have experienced a lot of difficulty,” she says. “I rely heavily on grocery delivery normally and in this crisis I’m hearing no grocery delivery services have spots available for weeks on end. As someone who is high risk, I wouldn’t want to risk going to a grocery store right now, and grocery shopping in person is difficult for me at the best of times.”

The Whole Foods near Liebowitz’s house in Silver Spring is only letting a certain number of customers in at a time. Those waiting to get in have to line up outside, spaced six feet apart. Liebowitz can’t imagine enduring that feat. “That’s part of the reason I use a wheelchair,” she says. “My walking and standing stamina is limited. What if this was before I had my chair? That would be very difficult for me.”

Some stores, includingSafeway and Giant locations in the D.C. area, have designated specific times for senior citizens to shop, a population at higher risk for contracting and succumbing to the virus. Liebowitz wishes they would make their language more inclusive and welcome others who need more space to shop. 

“I have two conditions on the CDC high-risk list,” she says. “I’ve heard a lot of people are reluctant to go to stores during these hours, especially if they’re invisibly disabled. They don’t want to have to prove they’re immunocompromised.” 

Giant has scheduled “dedicated shopping hours for senior citizens 60-and-older and individuals with compromised immune systems” from 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. daily. A representative says if someone with a disability shows up during that time, they won’t be turned away.

Safeway’ has set aside slots on Tuesday and Thursday mornings from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. so “senior citizens, pregnant women, and compromised immune systems can avoid crowds.” 

Neither store specifically calls out disabilities. “Seniors are very much not the only people at risk in this pandemic,” Liebowitz says. “I’m tired of reminding people that you can be young and disabled or young and immunocompromised.” 

D.C. announced plans to help on Thursday. In her press briefing about food access, Bowser said the city will launch a hotline residents can call if they need groceries or other essentials like medicine and can’t leave the house. “It’s a lifeline, really, to make sure people have what they need,” Bowser said.

This is especially critical because services like Instacart cost extra and paying for groceries is already a challenge for many Washingtonians. Because of the public health crisis, D.C. residents may not have access to the personal care attendants they depend on for cooking and grocery shopping. 

Department of Human Services Director Laura Zeilingerhopes the hotline will be up and running by early next week. “This is based on need,” Zeilinger says. “We would not be charging for those groceries. We’ll be leveraging disaster relief funding.” 

City Paper requested an interview with the Office of Disability Rights to find out what other resources are available for residents with disabilities. After several days, Director Mathew McCollough responded that ODR could only issue a statement approved by the Executive Office of the Mayor, which City Paper has yet to receive.

Community organizations, nonprofits, and churches are helping bridge the grocery gap for residents most in need, including those with disabilities. There are also a few things Washingtonians can do to help each other.

Arias hopes people who aren’t disabled or immunocompromised will consume mindfully. “If you’re able to go to the store and you’re safe, don’t use the apps if you don’t have to,” he says. “And if you are going to use Instacart or Amazon, try to do it once a week. I even do that. If I do it more than once a week, I’m taking a slot away from somebody else.” 

D.C. resident and wheelchair user Kelly Mack encourages Washingtonians to check on their friends or neighbors who are older or who have disabilities. “If you’re running to the store, make their lives easier and pick up a few things,” she says. “Anything any of us can do to help each other will make it easier for us to get through this safely.” 

Mack is fortunate: Her husband can do the grocery runs for their household. “Without him it would be a trillion times more difficult,” she says. Typically when Mack goes to the supermarket she stops by the service desk to ask for an employee to help her shop. “I don’t know if that’s still available,” she says.

Like Liebowitz, D.C. resident Kristin Duquette left the city to stay with her parents as the virus moves through the country. She uses a scooter to get around and says she recognizes how privileged she is to be able to lean on her parents as a support system.

“If I was still in D.C. right now, I don’t know how I would be going from day to day without chronic panic attacks,” Duquette says. “I don’t live with anyone else. I would have had a really hard time.” 

That said, Duquette sees COVID-19 as an opportunity for Americans to gain a greater sense of empathy that can lead to lasting change. “People with disabilities are used to adapting to systems that are not built for us,” she says. “A lot of people with disabilities have been asking for these accommodations, whether it’s wanting to telework more often or getting more things delivered. Now these things are necessities. Hopefully there will be a shift and we can show all of society how to be adaptable.” 

“It shows our humanness regardless of our social status or ability or knowledge or nationality,” she says of the pandemic. “Hopefully that commonality can help us come together and find more solutions that can have impact after this pandemic.”

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