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Until there are enough COVID-19 vaccines to go around, testing will remain crucial. But getting a test may mean waiting in line - sometimes for hours. In New York City, people who get paid to stand in line for others are known as line standers, and they used to do it for Broadway shows or for the latest iPhone models. Well, now they're queuing up outside COVID testing sites. Reporter Ben Ellman has the story.
BEN ELLMAN, BYLINE: It's just before dawn, and stores are getting ready to open on Chambers Street in Lower Manhattan. Delivery drivers are pushing carts full of boxes past a line of people waiting outside an urgent care clinic. Robert Samuel is at the front of the line, holding the spot for his client to be tested for COVID-19. He wrote his arrival time, 5:38 a.m., on the sidewalk in eye-catching yellow chalk.
ROBERT SAMUEL: I let my chalk do the talking.
ELLMAN: He wants perspective clients to know he can get there just as early for them. Samuel's the founder of Same Ole Line Dudes, which has been getting its customers into the cities in-demand events since 2012.
SAMUEL: Typical pre-pandemic waits consisted of Shakespeare in the Park in the summer in Central Park. "Hamilton" was a huge request, as well as other Broadway shows.
ELLMAN: He started the business by posting an ad on Craigslist, offering to stand in line for that year's new iPhone.
SAMUEL: The guy who hired me ended up getting his iPhone 5 online but still paid me for waiting for him and encouraged me to stay and sell my spot.
ELLMAN: When COVID-19 took hold of New York City in March, his business came to a standstill - but not for long. His prospects perked up with early voting, and now COVID testing accounts for 90% of his calls. High demand has driven rates up, with some other line standers charging $80 an hour, Samuel says. After two hours in the cold that morning, the client, Nick Sonnenberg, arrives to take his spot ahead of 22 people who've formed the line behind Samuel. Sonnenberg himself runs an outsourcing company and values the service he just got.
NICK SONNENBERG: Right now, my time's worth hundreds of dollars an hour, so to pay for someone to stand at 5:45 when it's cold and give me an extra hour or so of sleep, it was definitely worth it for me.
ELLMAN: When the clinic opens, the line starts moving. Sophia Tomasulo, a Tulane student home for winter break, is not pleased that the first spot went to someone who paid to be there.
SOPHIA TOMASULO: I don't know. Something about it seems a little off - like, especially because COVID is something that affects, like, different races and different classes disproportionately.
ELLMAN: She's not the only one critical of line standing. The practice has been the subject of controversy on Twitter. But real estate investor Greg Stuppler, who is at the back of the line waiting for his fourth test since mid-November, saw no problems.
GREG STUPPLER: I think it's America. I mean, honestly, if you're going - if someone can be employed and make a living doing something, providing a service for someone else, I'm all for it. So I'm OK with it.
ELLMAN: Whatever the ethics, Samuel is grateful to be in business at a time when so many entrepreneurs are struggling.
For NPR News, I'm Ben Ellman.
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