BY RAFAELA PRIFTI/
Ms. Sophia Zayas, Bronx Representative at the Governor Cuomo’s Office of Regional Affairs, talked to the English Editor of Dielli (The Sun) about the dramatic impact of the pandemic to the community she serves and the strength of cultivating relationships that unite us. Her immigrant roots make her feel at home in the densely populated and diverse neighborhoods of the Bronx including a large Albanian-American community. She has attended Albania’s and Kosovo’s Independence Day along with Albanian representatives, officials, families and guests, who remember Ms. Zayas hand-signing of the eagle and saying in perfect Albanian, “Hej Shqipe!” a common greeting among fellow Albanians. All those memories became more endearing in the months of the pandemic that started in March followed by lockdown orders in New York, which was suddently the epicenter of a major health crisis. In those days most New Yorkers, overwhelmed and anxious, watched Governor Cuomo’s daily briefings to stay informed and learn how to manage or practice a new kind of living in the time of Coronavirus.
I conducted my interview with Sophia Zayas in two parts, starting at the end of May. At the time, some areas in the Bronx were more affected compared to other boroughs. The Regional Representative worked on the front lines with community leaders, advocates and residents. I asked her to describe the response specifically to those 5 zip codes, where at least one has a large Albanian population. “I communicated on a daily basis with local electeds, community representatives and related the feedback to Albany and to the Governor. One contributing factor of the situation was the large influx of impoverished people that highlighted health disparities. I was able to communicate the need of the significantly affected areas to the Governor, who responded by bringing more testing to the South Bronx. A good step in our response to the unfolding heath crisis was the antibody testing. It was the outcome of effective communication with churches and members of the community. At the same time, the response in Zip codes that were less affected focused on providing more PPE, more hand sanitizer from the state, and equipment to protect themselves,” said the Governor’s Bronx Representative. When I addressed a shared concern about testing capacity in New York, Ms. Zayas recalled the “rough patch between the Governor and the Federal Government to address the need to increase testing”. She added: “As a result of those efforts, COVID diagnostic testing and antibody testing are available to urgent care centers, pharmacies, churches and grocery stores, in order to get employees tested. In addition, antibody testing was brought to supermarkets, although it wasn’t promoted, it was only for random sampling. It has a great success rate and the community response was immediate. They appreciated seeing that the Governor’s Office and Department of Health were out there and concerned about their needs.” Talking about NAICHA – Housing Authority – which is overrun with cases, Sophia noted that the need came to the regional representatives and it was addressed by the Governor. “They developed a program,” said Ms. Zayas, “consisting of ready responders such as paramedics and practitioners who are currently on-site at the housing facilities. Residents can call the ready responders to their doors for their health needs.” In my next question I brought up the preparations for a possible second wave, that was much talked about in the media. She indicated that while trying to be optimistic about getting through the worst time, this is no time to put the guard down. Experts have stated that a second wave is probable. “As we go into Phase One of the reopening,” the Bronx Borough Gubernatorial official said, “Pelham Gardens which has a significant number of Albanians, has a dramatically higher Infection rates compared to the city. My job as the Regional Rep. as we’re going into phase one is to listen and console people who are in quarantine and under lockdown orders, but also to encourage mask-wearing and take preventive measures. People have been distracted because of the tragedies, looting and rioting. I’m trying to put the focus on putting a mask and social distancing and to be careful. I think we’re at a good place in terms of the COVID cases as a state. The Bronx has to be mindful of how we go about moving forward.”
She paused briefly to make a point about the protest and the health risks: “There was an uproar in our state and country. The protesters, marchers, looters and rioters on the street, are not practicing the safety measures which could mean a possible risk of an increase in infection cases. The Governor fears that if we start feeling overconfident with the low numbers now, we may become less vigilant in facing the virus. Often when people don’t read or hear about it, they start thinking the virus must be gone. That is not the case.” She believes that under the strong leadership of the Governor the community stepped up to meet the challenge of an incredible magnitude and impact. From it, she acknowledges the valuable lessons of managing a health crisis and battling a pandemic. With regard to the economic impact, I asked her to share how the community felt about the first phase of reopening, which was on June 8th while protests had erupted, violent at times, and were continuing for days in our neighborhoods. “In light of protests, we have to pay close attention to what is happening in the region. COVID-19 is still in focus, while we have to stay alert to keep people from destroying properties and businesses that communities had worked hard to build for years. Reopening of construction and manufacturing companies and certain businesses who sell food is good for the economy and the community, as we they continue to practice social distancing and common sense,” said Sophia.
We continued the second part of the interview, when 100 days of the pandemic had passed from the date the first case was identified. Bronx had been a hotspot that experienced a significant rise of COVID-19 cases, a respiratory disease caused by a highly contagious virus. In the fourth month of the global health crises, the threat of the virus has not diminished. In one of the press briefings I attended, Governor Cuomo said that there is another virus in the society, “the virus of racism”. As protesters took to the streets to demand racial equality, the riots again impacted some boroughs like Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx more significantly. There were sections in the Bronx like Fordham, Grand Concourse, Burnside, that saw a lot of devastation. The excitement of the phase one of the reopening was affected by a lot of destruction of small businesses, the looting and rioting in the streets and in our own community.
“Albanian businesses were not affected by the looters and the rioters,” remarked Sophia. “Areas with Albanian businesses such as Morris Park were ready. They kept united and they didn’t allow for looters to come in their neighborhoods, whereas some Latino and Black-owned businesses were torn apart. Burnside, Grand Concourse and Fordham have minority owned businesses. Sadly, the looters ended up hurting their own community. I visited these areas with the President of The Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation, Marlene Cintron, to assess the damage and assist through the Department of Financial Services, and loan programs.”
Ms. Sophia Zayas, who holds a College Degree in Business Law, is the first woman in her family to hold a state-level office position. I asked her to take me through her work day. Sophia answered: “The day of a Regional Rep is pretty unpredictable. I have been a Rep for 2 years. A pre-pandemic workday would include a range of things: such as setting out an agenda, working on regional reports, expense reports to brief the Governor, emails from Albany, scheduling maybe a conference or planning events for the Governor whether it’s visits, scoping out places, speaking to people in the community, speaking to elected officials. One of the rep’s tasks is planning a program. who do we want to see in the audience, who do we invite, what is the topic, what will the Governor address. It is very challenging and overwhelming. We are molded for perfection as the governor is a perfectionist. Staying informed about the regional issues and its needs and also communicating effectively with the elected officials is of primary importance. I ask them what issues need to be addressed or if there’s anything I could do for them. I reach out to advocates or they could reach out to me. The advocates are non-profit organizations. Community residents can reach out about housing. We do constituency work. If they’re not a part of my region I can refer them to a colleague or agency that can help them. There’s always action going on. The Reps know each other on a familial level and we work endless hours together. Our job is stressful but it comes with rewards. There are times where I’ve been upset and stressed out because something doesn’t turn out the way I want.”
I asked if she could share a moment that had made her proud.
Ms. Zayas said that the Sheridan Expressway was a huge transportation project that is still going on now. “The Governor wanted to come to the Bronx to announce it. They gave me 18 hours to build an event for the Expressway. I didn’t know how I was going to get 400 people in a room in less than 18 hours. I made calls and sent emails, reached out to people and the school we were close to. We ended up with 500 people in the auditorium. The Governor was very pleased and congratulated me so I felt accomplished in my job as a Rep,” For Sophia, part of that event comes with cultivating relationships in the community.” It was a great segue to my last question about her connections with the Albanian community and who was the first Albanian she had met in the Bronx. “The first Albanian I met was Esad Rizai. I introduced myself as the new Bronx Regional Representative. In observance of the Albanian independence. I brought the proclamation on behalf of the Governor and presented it to the Albanian-American Society Foundation. We became great friends. Albanians are very welcoming and accepting. I feel that my network of Albanians is wide, I’ve been able to cultivate relationships with the Albanian community. This past year at the Kosovo Independence event I presented the proclamation to honor posthumously Ali Rizai, Esad’s father, and the work he’s done. I brought Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul to honor Albania and Kosovo Independence at the Borough Hall at the Bronx Borough President Office. The Lieutenant Governor presented a proclamation on behalf of Governor Cuomo to the whole Albanian community and organizations. I value the good relationships of its members with Governor Cuomo. Whatever their needs might be, I try my best to provide services to keep them united.”