One essential worker on two coronavirus frontiers

A Filipino immigrant battles the pandemic in a New York City hospital — and at his restaurant

On a mid-March afternoon, Roel Martinez Tumaneng left the radiology procedure room at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan, where he operated a sophisticated scanning machine, and walked down the hallway to the break room. Underneath his yellow hospital gown he felt his phone buzz. 

At the top of his screen was a Facebook message from Noriel Satira, the chef of his Filipino restaurant Kusina Pinoy Bistro in Woodside, Queens. Noriel had just heard that starting this day, March 16, New York City restaurants could no longer seat and serve customers because of the rapid spread of Covid-19. 

Roel had already seen an uptick in coronavirus patients at Bellevue, so he was not shocked, yet the message left him with many questions. 

“Where are we gonna get the payment for the restaurant? What are we gonna do? And how long is this gonna be [for]?” thought Roel, 38, a daytime Radiologist Assistant and nighttime owner of Kusina, as he later recalled.  

From the hospital’s employee lounge, Roel called for a staff meeting at Kusina, the Tagalog word for kitchen. Several days later, Roel met with his waiters, cooks and dishwasher in the eatery’s basement office to discuss next steps.

By March 20, it was clear they would have to close their doors — at least for the time being. That afternoon, Kusina posted a picture of a sign on their Facebook page, “Sorry, WE’RE CLOSED today,” it told their over 1,000 followers. 

“Wag sanang mag tagal,” one person responded in the photo comments, meaning, “Hoping it won’t last long.” 

Eight months and over 263,000 New York City coronavirus cases later, Kusina is still grappling with restrictions caused by Covid-19. While its doors are now open, in accordance with city and state mandate, its indoor seats represent only a quarter of its capacity — and as the weather cools, customers are beginning to eschew the outdoor tables that had kept Kusina afloat during the summer. 

For Roel — a Filipino immigrant who had arrived in New York only two years before the onset of coronavirus — the outbreak heightened his roles as both a frontline healthcare worker and a restaurant owner. He found himself with two essential parts to play in a pandemic that no one saw coming.  

“It’s like we’re soldiers. We had training, but here it is. It’s a war [and] it’s already here,” Roel said. “We had arms and weapons. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough.”

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Roel stands next to a scanning machine in March at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan. Photo Credits: Roel M. Tumaneng

Throughout March, Roel watched as the number of Covid-19 cases at Bellevue ballooned. More and more often, the lung scans he conducted were coming back positive for coronavirus. He said he had no shield or respirator as he moved from patient to patient, just a gown and a surgical mask that any civilian could purchase on Amazon.

“Every day I was praying to the lord, ‘Spare me.’ But what else can we do?” Roel said. “If your patient has Covid, you can’t say no.” 

His parents back in Guam were worried about him, and his father, Rogelio Tumaneng, called nearly every day.

“The only thing I [could] do is keep praying for his safety and for god to protect him during this time,” said 79-year-old Rogelio.

Eight thousand miles away, Roel sensed his father’s anxiety and left out the grimmest details.

“I was [just] proud to tell him I was dealing with Covid,” he said.

One detail Roel withheld from his father was that he had gone to an attorney and created a living will.

“Since I’m dealing with Covid every day, I don’t know what tomorrow brings. I have a heart problem,” he said, referring to a recent diagnosis of Atrial Fibrillation — a condition that can lead to stroke, blood clots and even heart failure. “I don’t know what will happen.”

When he got off work at 5 p.m, Roel would take the No. 6 train and then the No. 7 train and go straight to Kusina.

On those evenings, the one-time bustling Filipino restaurant under the 7 train’s elevated tracks in the heart of Little Manila was vacant, but for a cook, a waiter and Roel, who would arrive around 6 p.m. after his eight-hour hospital shift.

“We call him the man with no rest,” said Dennis Nepomuceno, 47, co-owner of Kusina.

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Roel, Dennis and the restaurant’s other two co-owners had already lost thousands of dollars in revenue after closing their doors to customers. They had tried to mitigate the damage by offering delivery, and signed up with Grubhub, Ubereats, Seamless and Doordash. A long line of takeout bags had quickly replaced the row of customers who used to sit at the bar.

But business was slow. Before the pandemic, Kusina entertained a loyal crowd who came for the atmosphere as much as they came for the Lumpiang Shanghai, or Filipino spring rolls. Back then the bistro hosted live bands on the weekends and offered late-night Karaoke, where patrons sang their favorite Filipino tunes. On other days, Kusina’s loudspeakers would blast OPM — “Original Pinoy Music,” or pop music and dramatic love ballads of the 70s.

“Filipinos love to sing,” Roel told me on a recent September evening over a dinner of chicharon — fried chicken skin — and Adobo Chicken Liver as an OPM melody played in the background.

And when his customers sang, they would drink, Roel said. He estimated that over 70% of their pre-pandemic profits came from alcohol sales. Although the regulars continued to order Calamares Gigantes and Pork Sisig, they were no longer purchasing beverages.

In early April, Roel and his partners took out a loan to cope with the losses, which now amounted to around $40,000, he said. 

On April 18, the owners temporarily laid off the staff and closed the kitchen indefinitely.

“We [didn’t] know if it was for a short period of time, or if it was going to be forever,” Roel said.

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As a child, Roel was quick to utter his first words — and when he did, his Filipino family said he never stopped talking (so much so that they pegged him as a future radio host). But during those early years, the son of maintenance workers decided he wanted to serve in healthcare. 

Roel was born in 1981 in the Northern Philippines, where his parents raised him and his nine siblings in the mountainous municipality of Vintar.

Roel and his family in Vintar, Ilocos Norte, Philippines. Roel is in the middle row, second from the right, wearing a striped black sweater. Photo Credits: Roel M. Tumaneng

He once told his older sister Menchee that he was going to find a cure for HIV/AIDS, “I will be the one to invent the medicine,” said Roel, then a young grade-schooler at the height of the crisis.

Fast forward to his late teens, when Roel graduated from high school and left Vintar for Manila to study radiology. He worked in the Filipino capital for seven years as a radiology technician before heading to Guam. Menchee had married an American living in the US Territory, and her entire family had tagged along.

Once Roel arrived, he began applying for healthcare jobs — but, without American credentials, no hospital would take him. So he enrolled in online radiology courses at Loma Linda University in California.

“[I was] basically going back to school to learn the same things,” Roel said. “We [even] used the same books.”

Roel earned his American Bachelor’s, then worked another seven years in Guam before enrolling in a Rutgers University online masters’ program in 2017.

Upon graduation, he told his friend Landon Aydlett that he wanted to visit the town of his alma mater: Newark, New Jersey.

“Why would we stay in New Jersey when we could stay in New York?” Landon quipped.

The pair settled on Woodside, Queens, where in September 2018, Roel decided to settle down.

It was around that time that his new friend Gel Rio, who lived in the neighborhood, decided to open up a Filipino restaurant — and he asked Roel to go in on the venture.

Roel had landed a job at Mount Sinai Hospital in Morningside Heights; by December, he said he was game. On March 28, 2019, Roel and the three other co-owners of Kusina had a storefront, a menu filled out and a staff ready to start taking orders.

Less than one year later, the pandemic hit.

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Last April, just before the lights went off in Kusina, Roel accepted a job in the radiology department of New York Presbyterian Weill Cornell.

He would operate the only “hybrid” PET scan and MRI machine in New York City.

Rich Sta Lucia, a friend from church, said he was not surprised when Roel switched jobs in the middle of the pandemic.

“He’s always after something novel, something that will give him new challenges,” said Rich, 39, of New Jersey.  

But when Roel arrived at the David H. Koch Center — home of the apparatus — the building was closed, and all of its clinical staff were across the street at the main campus fighting coronavirus. Roel joined them.

Roel working in the radiology department of NYP Weill Cornell. Photo Credits: Roel M. Tumaneng

As the days and weeks wore on, most of Weill Cornell’s beds were taken up by those with Covid-19. 

“We were asking ourselves, what happened to the other patients?” he said. “Why are our patients all Covid?”

Roel’s coworker Edgardo Romano, the only other person trained to operate the hybrid machine, said it was unlike anything he’d ever seen.

“People did not know how to proceed as far as the procedures [or] the precautions to take…Our day to day got thrown out the window,” said Romano, 42, who has worked at Weill Cornell for five years. 

Roel and Romano spent the next few months seeing mostly Covid-19 patients in the procedure room, where they would take CAT scans and sterilize catheters, among other tasks. 

The work took a toll on Roel’s mental health. On April 9, he confided in Rich.

“It’s sometimes tough to fight your own head. [Paranoia can be] very powerful,” Roel wrote to Rich in Tagalog.

“Hang tight, bro. And pray,” Rich responded. 

In an effort to reduce their exposure to coronavirus, clinicians worked for three days instead of five — on 12-hour shifts instead of eight. For Roel, who no longer had a business to attend to, the new schedule afforded an opportunity to resume one of his favorite hobbies: traveling.

When he’d finish his 3-day shift, he would hop in a rental SUV and drive to a different destination — the docks of Cape Cod or the woods of Moultonborough, New Hampshire.

“You want to make sure you’re mentally and physically away from this virus,” he said. 

Yet he kept thinking about his restaurant.  

“We were just listening to the news every day to see what’s going on,” Roel said. 

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When New York announced its “phase two” reopening on June 19, which allowed restaurants to open with restrictions, Roel and his colleagues had just days to prepare for the resumption of outdoor dining.  

A waitress stands outside Kusina on June 27 during the beginning of the “Phase Two” reopening. Photo Credits: Roel M. Tumaneng

They applied to expand their footprint into Roosevelt Avenue; they were approved, and within a month they were hosting a live concert.

“Outside dining can’t stop us from jamming with the band. Eat, drink, and sing!” Roel wrote as he posted a video of the performance on Facebook.

On that summer night, guitarists strummed OPM hits from the sidewalk as families ate Pinoy street foods from their socially distanced curbside seats. Every minute or two, the 7 train would roar overhead.

“That’s the downside of the area. [Our customers] are shouting…they’re screaming at each other, but what can we do?” Roel said.

The outdoor tables filled up nearly every weekend night, but Roel and his co-owners found themselves turning away guests. He estimated that less than half of the restaurant’s usual 25 tables fit out front.

They were barely breaking even.

At the hospital, Covid-19 cases had waned. In July and August, Roel rarely saw anyone with the virus.

September arrived, and he got a call from his sister in Guam. Many in his family of 13 had come down with coronavirus – and his dad had it the worst.

“I’m helping treat people here with Covid, but I can’t even help my family,” Roel told me on September 30, the day indoor dining opened at Kusina, as New York moved to “phase three” of its reopening plan.

The inside of Kusina on Sept. 30, 2020. Photo Credits: Roel M. Tumaneng

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On that chilly evening, Roel stood behind the register at Kusina and fiddled with the packaging of a non-contact thermometer. 

A small disco ball hung above his head and strobed an array of colorful dots that bounced off the walls and glanced across the upright sheets of plastic that now separated each table.

Abba’s Dancing Queen played on the speakers.

Roel inserted batteries into the thermometer and held it up to his forehead; It wasn’t working.

At a nearby table, a toddler knocked into one of the barriers and it came crashing down.

“It’s like going back to another start,” Roel said.

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