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At turkey give-a-way in Buffalo, lasting consequences of coronavirus surface for the holiday season

Several groups, from police to the Peacemakers, came together to distribute 500 turkeys in downtown Buffalo Monday. But it also showcased the economic consequences and struggles the community continues to face as the pandemic rages on.

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO
Billy Buffalo (Buffalo Bills mascot) danced with those in line at Monday's event

Monday’s turkey handout in front of One Seneca Tower was full of Buffalo clichés. Signs held up by volunteers and police said “City of Good Neighbors”.

People sang along to the Buffalo Bills shout song from their cars as they were handed food.  But with COVID numbers rapidly rising in Western New York, Thanksgiving plans for where those turkeys would be consumed varied. 

What will you be doing this Thanksgiving?

“I'm going to be I'm going to be in South Buffalo with my family. And I'm going to be close with my dogs in front of a fireplace. So I'll be keeping my distance but at the same time enjoying the company of others,” said Shaun Heidinger, Director of Business Development with Douglas Development.

“My daughter and my son and my wife and I are going to shelter in place at our home. And we'll have a lovely Thanksgiving, just the four of us a little bit reduced from what we would usually like to do. But you know, we all have to do our part," said Rich Gold, President and Chief Operating Officer for M&T Bank.

“Last week I lost my dad to the COVID-19,” said Emmanuel Johnson. “I live by myself. There's no family left with me. I’ve lost all of my family pretty much."

You could find Johnson on Monday sitting on his scooter waiting in line. Wearing a Buffalo News hat with a Golden State Warriors jacket. He lives in an apartment on Rother Avenue. He always cooks the turkey in his house, but this year it will be just for him.

“Thanksgiving I would just be in the house and I'm getting some free turkey. I'm grateful for that. I'm going to be able to cook it and stay home and eat,” Johnson said. 

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO
Emmanuel Johnson packing his free turkey away in front of One Seneca Tower November 23, 2020

With much of Western New York trending towards becoming a COVID micro-cluster red zone, Johnson has already experienced the trauma the virus can bring. His father was in the hospital for a month and on a ventilator before he passed.

“I was living with my dad when he passed. I have to stay by myself,” he said. “It's not easy when you lost all your family knowing how one person left and the goal so you have to learn how to think for yourself. So that's what I'm going to do now.”

And quickly adjusting to living alone has been tough for Johnson, who said COVID played a part in him recently losing his job as a customer service representative. Now he’s trying to find money to pay for his father’s funeral.

“I intend to probably do cremation because a coffin is almost $3,000 and I can't-- I can't just-- I can't deal with it. When you're not working you don't have no source of income,” Johnson said.

Johnson said he wants to attempt a GoFundMe to help pay, but isn’t sure how. He’s taking it day by day and today. He was one of many people who waited hours in line to get a turkey, some lining up as early as 8 a.m. before the 1 p.m. handouts.

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO
The line was blocks long at Monday's event. You can see here it's wrapped around a corner before arriving at One Seneca Tower

“Well I heard it on the news. They said you can come by at one o'clock and get a free turkey for Thanksgiving at Seneca One. So I decided to leave my house, in this car and come and get one because I need something to cook for tomorrow,” he said.

For Johnson and many others, the turkey is for more than Thanksgiving. Several people circled back around for a second turkey, many of them without a vehicle. Police and other volunteers eventually had to cut off those without cars in an effort to make sure more individuals received food.

One woman, shortly after, arrived with her daughter.

“Oh my god. People are taking two turkeys,” the woman exclaimed.

She spoke with an officer who explained why they had stopped handing out to walkers.

"They walking back up and double dipping," said the officer. "That's why we had to stop handing them out to walkers."

"I don't blame you," replied the woman.

"Do you have a car?" asked the officer.

"Yes, but I was dropped off because the line wraps all away around the block," the woman said.

After listening, the officer made sure she received a turkey.

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO
A BPD officer speaking with a woman and her daughter. At first, he tells her she needs a car for a turkey. After listening, makes sure she gets one before leaving on foot

“You're all set," said the officer.

"Okay, thank you. Okay. I’m so sorry,” said the woman.

"Don't be," replied the officer.  

“They say Buffalo is the city of good neighbors, And I think so, because we gelling together, trying to distribute this food,” said Ken Stevens, better known as Blue. 

He’s supervisor for the Buffalo Peacemakers. Working next to police officers, he handed out Buffalo Bills themed masks.

“Here you go ma’am,” Blue said. “Buffalo Bills fan?" he asked one woman while handing her a mask.

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO
Blue handing out masks in front of One Seneca Tower

"Yeah," she replied.

"I’m not,” Blue said jokingly with Bills mascot Billy Buffalo dancing 20 feet away from him.

Blue handed out a lot of masks Monday afternoon.

“An older lady came up just a few minutes ago," Blue said, "she said, ‘Oh my god, it's a good thing that you guys are giving away,’ she said, ‘but the lines are wrapped around the block.’”

Heidinger (Director of Business Development with Douglas Development) said the need hasn't gone unnoticed. Douglas Development is the group behind providing the turkeys. 

“We’re learning today that we need to go bigger," Heidinger said. "And next year, we'll be doing at least 1000 turkeys because people lined up today at 8am.”

As the final turkeys were being distributed, Johnson had this farewell for those seeing family this holiday season.

“Please wear a mask. You have to live. It's a civic duty. A lot of people say, well, you can't force me to wear a mask. I have a constitutional right not to. Yeah, but what about your friends? What about your loved ones? What about your family member? Just wear a mask.”

Nick Lippa leads our Arts & Culture Coverage, and is also the lead reporter for the station's Mental Health Initiative, profiling the struggles and triumphs of those who battle mental health issues and the related stigma that can come from it.