The fifth part in a series honoring the food and agriculture workers who lost their lives to the virus.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken an incalculable toll on the food industry workers of America, from restaurant servers and meat plant workers to the farmworkers who toil in fields. According to research from the University of California, San Francisco, food industry workers’ risk of dying went up by 40 percent from March to October 2020. For Latinx workers, deaths increased by 60 percent in the sector.
In this six-part series, we’re honoring the lives of those we have lost to COVID-19. This week, we have tributes to twin brothers who were deeply connected to their family farm, a meatpacking plant worker who brought her family to America to give them a better life and an entrepreneurial Peruvian restaurant owner.
Leon and Cleon Boyd
Two of six children, twin brothers Leon and Cleon Boyd grew up on Boyd Family Farm in Wilmington, Vermont. All the siblings cherished their agricultural roots, but the twins were especially tied to the land.
“They had always been together,” says their sister-in-law Janet Boyd, who is married to the twins’ younger brother Bucky. “They grew up on the farm, and never lived away from it too long.”
Cleon enjoyed the late-night work of grooming ski trails at Mount Snow, while Leon worked at Haystack Mountain nearby. The twins also still helped out at the family farm, run by Bucky, where they’d mow the blueberry fields and assist during sugaring season.
The twins loved to play country music with their extended families, which they’d often perform at weddings and other events. “The twins harmonized really well,” says Janet.
Last March, when the pandemic shut down the nearby ski mountains where they groomed trails during the winter season, Leon and Cleon retreated to the family farm. There, they got to work in the sugarhouse, helping to make syrup. Nobody knew that someone in the family had already contracted COVID-19.
The twins were among more than a dozen members of the Boyd family to get sick, and they were among the first Vermonters to show symptoms of the virus. Cleon entered the hospital first, and Leon followed him a few days later, where they were each eventually put on ventilators.
Cleon, who was born a few minutes before his twin brother, died on April 3. Six days later, on April 9, Leon followed. The rest of the family recovered from the virus.
The twin brothers are buried together on the hillside farm, where the ski mountains at which they worked look over the family cemetery.
Tin Aye was always looking out for others. Originally from Burma (Myanmar), Aye worked for Karen Women’s Organization and the Burmese Women’s Union to advocate for human and womens rights. “She was a super woman,” says her daughter San Twin.
Aye left Burma with the aim of giving her children access to a better education and more opportunities. In 2012, she and her family immigrated to the US from a refugee camp in Thailand. The family settled in Colorado, where Aye found a job working on the meatpacking line at a JBS plant in Greeley. “She was hard working and almost never missed work,” says Twin.
Sometime in March, Aye contracted COVID-19. Her family believes she got sick at work. The world’s biggest meatpacker, JBS did not offer masks or personal protective equipment to its employees, and it didn’t enforce social distancing guidelines until April 13. Nearly 300 workers at the Greely plant, including Aye, were infected by the coronavirus.
She was admitted to the hospital on March 29, 2020. One day prior, Aye’s daughter had given birth to a baby boy. She never got to meet or see her grandson. After spending 58 days in the ICU, Aye died on May 17, at the age of 60.
More than a year later, Aye’s family is still mourning the loss of their matriarch, who enjoyed gardening, hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park and cooking for her loved ones. This weekend, they will honor her memory during a celebration of life ceremony.
“My heart is broken in too many pieces,” says Twin. “My mom, she will always be in our hearts, thoughts and everywhere we go.”
Despite being Greek, Philip Sardelis was determined to open a restaurant that served the bold Peruvian flavors that he loved. He and his cousin (also named Philip Sardelis) opened their first Sardi’s Chicken, a Peruvian chicken restaurant, in Beltsville, Maryland in 2008.
The eatery is known for its pollo a la brasa, a type of blackened rotisserie chicken that was created in Lima in the 1950s. One of Sardelis’ proudest moments was being chosen as a premier caterer for Barack Obama’s inaugural ball.
Despite the pandemic shuttering restaurant doors across the country, Sardi’s Chicken persevered. “We were able to survive this,” says his widow Lissette Sardelis. “We shifted a lot, but because the restaurants are mostly fast-casual, it was easier to adjust.”
Since opening their first location nearly 13 years ago, the cousins grew the restaurant’s reach. There are now 15 other Sardi’s Chickens in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, and another one is on the way.
Sardelis contracted COVID-19 in March, before he had a chance to get vaccinated. “I never got the chance to ask him where he caught it,” says Lissette. He was intubated on March 19, a week before his vaccine appointment. On April 24, he died at the age of 48. He leaves behind his wife and four children.
Lissette hopes his story will bring awareness to the fact that the virus is still a threat. “The virus is a threat to the whole food industry. It’s the one that’s been hit the most,” she says. “I know they said there’s now a high survival rate, like 97 percent, but the other three percent that didn’t make it… they also matter.”
Very sad stories.