As stores are about to open on Chambers Street in Lower Manhattan, a man sits on a stool at the front of a line of people waiting for COVID-19 tests. The time "5:38 a.m." is scrawled on the pavement in front of him in eye-catching yellow.
"I let my chalk do the talking," says Robert Samuel, explaining that he wants people to see how early he showed up for his client, and that he could do the same for them.
Samuel is the founder of Same Ole Line Dudes. The business traditionally provided line standers for Broadway shows, sporting events and other in-demand events, but demand collapsed when New York City imposed a lockdown to combat the coronavirus last spring.
Now, COVID-19 testing has been a godsend, with the wait at public and private testing sites stretching to four or more hours.
"We're still far, far from what we used to do but it's still keeping us in the game," he says.
Samuel started his business in 2012 during a brief patch of unemployment. He posted an ad to Craigslist offering to stand outside of an Apple Store for that year's iPhone release.
"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," he says. "So I sold my spot a few times that night and in the morning I had enough to purchase a phone that I had no intention of buying."
Since then, Samuel's business grew to include 15 employees, but when the pandemic took hold of the city in March, business came to a standstill for months.
Then the waits for early voting in the election revived it in November. And now lines for COVID-19 tests are 90% of Samuel's business. The high demand to get in during the holiday testing rush has led some other line standers to charge $80 an hour or more, he says.
After two hours waiting in the cold, Samuel makes way for client, Nick Sonnenberg, who arrives to take his spot ahead of the 22 people who have gathered behind the line stander.
"Right now, my time's worth hundreds of dollars an hour," says Sonnenberg, who runs an outsourcing company. "So to pay someone to wake up and stand at 5:45 a.m. when it's cold and give me an extra hour or so to sleep, it was definitely worth it for me."
When the clinic opens and the line starts moving, other patients inch toward the door, including Sophia Tomasulo, who just got home from her first semester at Tulane University.
It irks her that the morning's first test went to someone who paid to be first in line, "Because COVID is something that affects different races and different classes disproportionately."
Criticism of the practice has also spread online. In November, a video with instructions on how to use the gig app TaskRabbit to hire a COVID-19 testing line stander drew a backlash on Twitter.
But real estate investor Greg Stuppler, who is at the back of the line waiting for his fourth test in as many weeks, sees no problem.
"I think it's America" he says, "if someone can be employed and make a living providing a service for someone else, I'm all for it."
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.