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‘We’re going to have to figure out another way to pay the bills': Cash-strapped families hope coronavirus rescue arrives in time to pay the rent

Tricia and Warren Riel with their son, Cody. The Riels have been laid off and don't know what to expect next.
Tricia and Warren Riel with their son, Cody. The Riels have been laid off and don't know what to expect next.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Standing under the fluorescent lights of her local Market Basket store near Tyngsborough, Tricia Riel agonized over a choice that would have been simple before coronavirus: whether to buy an $8 watermelon.

Money was extremely tight. She had just been laid off from her part-time job busing tables at an Olive Garden due to the outbreak, and her husband, Warren, an auto body shop worker, was let go a few weeks earlier. But her son, Cody, a sixth-grader who had spent days anxiously cooped up in their home, looked so excited about the idea during their trip to the grocery store last week.

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So she placed the watermelon in her cart and bought it. Once they got home, they eagerly cut it open, only to find it tasted sour. Tricia, worried about the family’s $1,500 rent due April 1, took the watermelon back to try to get a refund, but was told the store was no longer taking returns because of the virus.

It was just another unlucky break for the Riel family in the wake of a pandemic that has torn through their lives, forcing hard choices between money for rent, utilities, groceries, and expenses for their 93-pound fluffy American Akita dog, Ava.

“I don’t have a paycheck coming in, I don’t have unemployment coming in, but I need milk,” Warren Riel, 50, said. “I have the rent money there. So I’ll tap into the rent for food or to keep the lights on.”

President Trump signed a sweeping, $2.2 trillion rescue package into law after it passed the House on Friday, providing much-needed relief to families like the Riels in the form of direct checks of $1,200 per person and $500 per child and significantly beefed-up unemployment benefits. That aid is desperately needed by the 3.3 million Americans who lost their jobs last week alone — a number that experts said could soar to 40 million by the end of April.

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But laid-off workers in Massachusetts stress that they need the money quickly, as they contemplate looming bill deadlines that won’t wait for federal action.

A $2,900 stimulus check would be a massive relief for the Riels right now, covering two months’ rent and giving them some breathing room as they likely face weeks more of unemployment. But the money may remain tantalizingly out of reach for now.

Many Americans will receive these checks in as little as three weeks, through direct deposits they’ve set up with the IRS, according to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. But the Riels do not have a bank account, meaning the aid could take much longer to reach them. The administration says it will work as quickly as possible to mail checks, but past stimulus checks took at least three months to reach families.

“If they said OK, we’ll get this stimulus package out, but you’re not going to get it until August or September, to me that’s just false hope,” Warren Riel said.

The Riels remain hopeful that they will qualify for the bill’s greatly expanded unemployment benefits, which will apply to anyone who was laid off after Jan. 26, and will include part-time workers like Tricia Riel, who originally hoped to return to the Olive Garden after just a few weeks.

“I thought it was going to be a very temporary thing, but now they’re saying it may go longer than we all thought,” she said. Without help soon, she lamented, “we’re going to be in a bad situation.”

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The Riels are not alone in their dread of the pile of bills due at the first of the month. Alyssa Mann, a 25-year-old waitress who worked at Deuxave before the Boston restaurant shuttered nearly two weeks ago, has been laser focused on the rent. Mann lives in Brighton with her boyfriend, who was let go from Deuxave at the same time, and her 5-year-old daughter, who is now out of school.

“It just feels like a dream,” Mann said of the rapid change from being a busy waitress working 40 hours a week in a dual-income household to being stuck at home with no pay coming in. She tries to take her mind off the situation by taking lots of walks with her family and playing with their new kitten, Willow.

But Mann’s rent, storage unit, electricity, credit card, and cellphone bills loom over her. Her $200 student loan payment, thankfully, has been deferred, and the governor’s office has forbidden utility companies from shutting off gas or electricity to customers for now.

The $1,700 stimulus check she would likely receive would help tide her over, and the legislation’s $600 per week boost to unemployment benefits would put her back on secure financial footing until the restaurant reopens. Mann has already applied for unemployment benefits but hasn’t yet been approved. It’s unclear how quickly Massachusetts residents will begin to see the extra federal money in their unemployment checks.

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And while she has hope for relief in the future, that doesn’t address the deadline she faces at the start of next month.

“If I don’t get it by the first, I can’t pay those bills and there’s nothing I can do about it,” Mann said.

It’s a refrain sounded by Peter Eco, a 55-year-old chef in Shrewsbury, who cut his family’s cable TV service and has relied on ramen noodles to save money on food this month as he struggles to come up with the more than $1,300 he needs for his mortgage payment.

Eco, who was told he was ineligible for unemployment, was laid off a few weeks before coronavirus hit and found himself searching for work in an industry that had nearly entirely shut down.

“We’ll pay what we pay,” Eco said of the bills that are due at the end of the month. “And roll the dice and see what happens.”

Eco has high blood pressure and has suffered pneumonia several times in the past, which makes him especially fearful about job-hunting while the coronavirus is still spreading.

“Do I say, screw it and go get a job at Amazon or Walgreens or something like that, where I’m out exposing myself? Or do I stay home, wait it out a month, fret about bills, fret about living?” he asked. “I feel like I’m damned if I do, damned if I don’t.”

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The Riels face a similar conundrum. Warren Riel looks for work every day on his tablet but has stopped going out to auto body shops and the local career center to ask if there are any openings. He wants to follow the social distancing guidelines and avoid getting sick.

“I go on Indeed every day,” Warren Riel said, referring to the job-hunting site. “I check it every day. I don’t want to go down to the career center because I know there are 50 other people down there.”

His wife, who has started relying on a Catholic Charities-run food pantry while the family struggles, is no longer hopeful that her husband will find work with so many businesses closed or at least bracing for impact.

“He keeps looking for a job and I’m like, ‘Honey, I’m sorry, but no place is going to hire you right now,’” Tricia Riel said. “We’re going to have to figure out another way to pay the bills.”


Liz Goodwin can be reached at elizabeth.goodwin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin