Red umbrellas are a common symbol of solidarity for sex worker rights

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Imagine there’s a deadly respiratory virus going around, and your line of work requires close contact with other people. Like, really close contact.

For sex workers, the coronavirus pandemic has been especially scary. If they decide to continue working in person, they put themselves at high risk. If they forgo close contact in favor of virtual dates, they substantially limit their income.

Raani Begum, a full-service sex worker in Philly, said she started to worry when all her usual neighborhoods emptied out. She lost contact with some regulars and relief organizations.

“It’s emotionally overwhelming, the visual aspect of it,” Begum said. “To walk through some of my old neighborhoods and think, ‘Where did all these people go?’ It’s alarming.”

During the global health crisis, Philadelphia has offered some guidance for sex workers: screen your clients for symptoms, clean your workspace, shower between sessions. Still, there’s no guarantee you won’t catch the virus. Health officials say the safest option is not to have sex with anyone outside your household.

Two mutual aid organizations jointly launched a relief fund for these Philadelphians, who cannot easily access government assistance.

Over two months, the Philadelphia Red Umbrella Alliance and Project SAFE have raised nearly $50,000 to distribute to local sex workers. They’ve so far received 250 applications from people requesting help.

Lulu Duffy-Tumasz, the coordinator for Project SAFE’s delivery program, said a program like this is long overdue.

“Take the fact that most sex workers have been unsure if they can get any government programs that have been established for relief, and put on having to navigate criminalization, while also navigating being safe during COVID,” Duffy-Tumasz said.

Harder to choose clients when people are staying home

The pandemic has shattered the social network that normally exists in Philly’s sex work scene.

Normally, Duffy-Tumasz said sex workers have a bunch of clients to choose from — but not so much now, since people are staying home and avoiding contact with others.

That robs sex workers of a lot of their power. Fewer available choices means less ability for people to pick clients that make them feel comfortable. It also changes how outreach workers can distribute aid.

These challenges are showing up all over the country. Some professionals have pivoted to virtual work — but that requires working way more hours and still taking a massive pay cut. Plus, there’s the fear of losing your reputation and close contacts by the time the pandemic has ended.

With Project SAFE, Duffy-Tumasz has tried to keep up the same level of outreach as before, even though it’s harder to find people since regular haunts are empty.

They’ve driven around Philly neighborhoods like Kensington to hand out condoms and lube, menstrual products and protective gear like pepper spray.

Distributed materials now also include fliers advertising the mutual aid fund.

Goal: Keep the fund going post-COVID

The fund has an easy, simple application.

After requiring proof that the applicant is a regular sex worker, such as a reference, it asks for name — not necessarily an official one, just some identifier — and the best way to deliver money. It can be submitted by phone, paper application or online.

A priority: listing any factors that might mean you need the money more than others, like unstable housing or a lack of government aid.

The group has started distributing some grants, all under $1,000 so far.

“All of our recipients that we’ve been able to give money to have been incredibly grateful,” said Begum, who’s also treasurer for the Red Umbrella Alliance. “They’re expressed that [in] emails and text messages about how it helps a lot and it goes a long way.”

But distributing tens of thousands of dollars in aid takes a ton of work.

Begum is on a team of 10 people working through the applications — and they’re still sifting through the high priority people with the most need.

Duffy-Tumasz is hoping to keep the fund going even after the COVID-19 restrictions have subsided.

“People do these one-off fundraisers and then they’re like, ‘Bye,’” Duffy-Tumasz said. “Ideally, this will also build some additional community and just a feeling of support for sex workers across the city.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...