Long Story Short: Cherish the heroes, value the facts
Recently, while grocery shopping—I won’t say where—I spotted an employee who was wearing a store security tag. I mentioned—keeping a six-foot distance as we spoke, as I did with any of the few personal interviews here—that I was writing a story about supermarket workers and I’d like to ask some questions. She told me that I need permission from the main office to talk to anyone in the store (which I had already been doing). I replied that as a shopper I often ask store employees questions; I’m a friendly person and employees willingly respond. “You can’t; this is private property,” she said. If the staff is not supposed to answer questions, I replied, you need to tell them. The woman acknowledged that I am free to talk to employees, but claimed that I can’t use anything they say in an article. I politely explained that this is not how the First Amendment works. She disagreed. Well, here we are.
Life in the trenches
There are three places I grocery shop, each for different reasons: Wegmans, Tops, and the Lexington Co-op. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the people working in these places. In the age of COVID-19, most of us venture into stores as little as possible, some not at all. But grocery workers are on the front lines daily, in contact with many people. They are the heroes who provide us with food and, when available, toilet paper. I wondered how they’re feeling about their work, and what stores are doing to be safe.
At the entrance of Wegmans, there’s a hand sanitizer display with a sign requesting that customers disinfect before entering. This may offer some comfort to shoppers, but people who are sick will quickly recontaminate anything they touch. More reassuring is the woman (we’re not using names) disinfecting shopping carts as they’re returned. She tells me that she sanitizes surfaces around the store all day long, including the glass windows people lean against on coolers. This has become her primary job. “People appreciate it,” she says.
Behind the entranceway sanitizer stands a security guard, which feels less reassuring than intimidating. I ask him what his role is there, and he says that he’s watching to make sure people don’t take out full carts of groceries without paying. “Do people do that?” I ask. “I haven’t seen anyone do it yet,” he replies, “but that’s what they tell me to do.”
Inside the store, most customers are not wearing masks, which is what medical experts recommend for those who aren’t symptomatic. But one woman has a surgical mask covering her mouth but positioned underneath her nose. Kind of missing the point, I think. Some employees wear rubber gloves, which are essentially a second skin that can be contaminated like hands, but I suppose this is also reassuring to customers.
No pressure, but thank you
I contacted another employee via social media. She has temporarily stopped working at Wegmans due to an earlier bout with a mysterious virus that landed her in the ICU. She doesn’t want to take any chances. Her mother, a nurse, tells me that Wegmans is not pressuring those who choose not to work now, but they will presumably be welcomed back after the current crisis ends.
At the start of the pandemic, Wegmans sent an email to employees, thanking them for their service. “As a senior leadership team—from store managers, to merchants, directors, group managers and area managers—we are so inspired by you,” the letter says. It goes on to tell employees that for the months of March and April, they will earn an additional two dollars per hour.
Notice my protective shield
Wegmans, Tops, the Lexington Co-op, and Dash's Market are all installing plexiglass screens at cash registers to protect employees. On a temporary basis, this may seem comforting, but let’s hope they don’t remain in place after the current pandemic. These barriers diminish the personal customer interaction we have taken for granted since the dawn of shopping. Wegmans also instituted a one-at-a-time process to allow customers into the taped-off cashier zone, resulting in one long, closely-packed line around the store. Cashiers sanitize credit card pads after every use.
“Workers are trying to stay apart,” says a Wegmans deli employee, “but it’s hard.” The store is no longer offering custom-sliced products; all foods now come prepackaged in a cooler. This has led to at least one confrontation between customers, as one socially conscious woman loudly called out another for touching multiple packages of meat. “I’m looking for the one I want,” the defiant second woman responded. This wasn’t good enough, and the socially distanced verbal exchange continued a bit longer.
Such conflicts are rare, say employees. “The clientele's behavior is generally pretty calm,” asserts one Tops worker. But small issues do arise. People post on social media when high-demand products become available. Then, “Customers come in looking for toilet paper or certain cuts of meat at 4 or 5 p.m., ten hours after we open,” says the employee. By then, customers have cleaned the shelves like locusts in a wheat field. Tops is not offering rain checks for featured items during the crisis, a fact that makes some people unhappy.
Another issue arises when customers attempt to exceed store limits on hard-to-find products. “You know as soon as someone comes up with a full cart, you have to scan them for the store's item limits and that conflict can go one of two ways,” says a Tops employee, “they either comply or become irate.” And separating a full cart into “three orders” doesn’t satisfy the limitations rule, he adds.
Learning new tricks
Knowing “what to do” in various situations is a challenge, according to the Tops employee. “We just enacted a plastic bag ban, and now people are bringing in reusable bags we no longer allow because they have been exposed to the outside,” says the worker. “This has created the most frustration and confusion.” Tops has also started using “exchange cups,” where people put their money, coupons, and checks. The cashier takes the payment and returns change and receipts to the cup. This bit of merchandising theater does little to protect anyone, since paper and metal can carry the virus, and everyone touches the cup. “From a customer's standpoint, they feel like that's more germs,” says the employee. Some refuse to use it.
This worker also notes that some of the most at-risk people are not staying home. “I see people come in with oxygen tanks,” he says, “They know all the employee’s names, and coming to shop very well might be their only social interaction.”
The Lexington Co-op
“At first I was really wasn’t sure what to think,” says Stephanie, a newer co-op bakery worker who allowed us to use her first name. “I saw lines of customers like I hadn’t seen before [as the pandemic reached Buffalo], and neither had any of my fellow co-workers. It was good to see so many people depending on us to supply them with their necessities.”
The Elmwood Avenue Lexington Co-op is one of the places a COVID-19 sufferer shopped before knowing he was infected. “I was working during the time the person had been here,” says Stephanie. “I did become a little nervous and it was the first time that I really thought about getting sick.” Stephanie’s concerns were dispelled by the store’s handling of the situation. “They implemented a lot of new cleaning and sanitizing standards to help make sure everyone stays safe,” she says, “both the staff and the public.”
New rules at the Co-op
Like most markets, the newly implemented procedures include lines on the floor to separate customers at the registers, along with the plexiglass barriers mentioned earlier. Also, as at most stores, there are no longer individual self-serve baked goods, and bulk goods are now pre-packaged. Reusable mugs, plates, and silverware have been replaced in the break room with disposable paper and plastic, which must drive some environmentally conscious co-op workers crazy.
As with larger supermarkets, hand sanitizer stations throughout the store have become the norm, and carts, baskets, and display cases are disinfected regularly. “I was wiping down the handles in the cooler section one day and was a little hesitant to move to the next one because the customer who had just closed it was still standing there, and I didn’t want her to take offense by wiping off the handle after she had just touched it,” Stephanie says, continuing, “but I went for it anyway, and after I was done the woman turned and thanked me for taking the time to make sure everything was continuously sanitized.”
As new information comes through, the co-op management is on top of it, taking suggestions, and implementing changes. They even offered to cover the cost of COVID-19 testing, should anyone want or need it. Stepahnie says the recent crisis has brought the store team closer together—though not literally of course. “We all check in with each other and help each other out more. When one person has too much to do someone else pitches in. It makes me feel really proud to work here.”
While writing this article, I made a quick stop at a 7-Eleven (the one the same infected individual mentioned above visited a few weeks ago). They too are making an effort, though the clear plastic curtain hanging from the ceiling with an eighteen-inch gap for commerce is laughably ineffective. An employee there says they are also about to curtail store hours, no longer staying open overnight. “Notice the door?” he says, motioning at the entrance, “No locks. We have someone coming in to put locks on the doors for the first time.” Since 1963, 7-Eleven stores have been open twenty-four hours a day. Perhaps reduced convenience will be the legacy of COVID-19, and we’ll all be looking at each other through plastic barriers in the future.
The politics of reason
First things first: everyone should follow the advice of medical experts and New York government officials regarding COVID-19. This can’t be emphasized enough. Stay home. When you must go out, take proper preventive measures. Unless you live under a rock—in which case you probably aren’t reading this—you know what those preventive measures are. Smart people take this pandemic seriously. Here’s four reliable sources for staying up to date on the latest medical recommendations: Center for Disease Control (CDC) the Mayo Clinic, The World Health Organization, and specific to our region, the New York State Department of Health.
Stress and perspective
It’s up to individuals to choose whether to exceed the recommendations of medical professionals, but you have a social obligation to at least meet them, adjusting your behavior as new guidelines develop. At the same time, it’s important to gain perspective through an understanding of the risks. Why? Because facts provide a degree of protection against irrationally excessive fear. Articles like There are reasons to be optimistic regarding the coronavirus in the Washington Post are rare. Around the clock news coverage and social media posts tend to focus on threats.
“The outbreak of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) may be stressful for people,” says the CDC. “Fear and anxiety about a disease can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions in adults and children.” Ed Yong, science writer for Atlantic magazine, says that some people in China even developed agoraphobia due to the pandemic there. The CDC urges people to: “Know the facts about coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) and help stop the spread of rumors.” Sharing accurate information can help people feel less stressed, they assert.
One statement has been on the CDC website from the start, and it’s still there today: “For most people, the immediate risk of becoming seriously ill from the virus that causes COVID-19 is thought to be low.”
The data backs this. In New York City, the situation is dire. Morgues are running out of space, and refrigeration trucks have been pressed into service to handle the deceased. NYC hospitals have begun sharing respirators between patients, a highly irregular procedure made necessary by a shortage of equipment. Unless the spread of the virus is stemmed, New York’s healthcare system will be overwhelmed, impacting everyone needing care for any illness or medical emergency. Even so, through the benefit of hindsight, we know that if you lived in NYC since the pandemic hit, your chance of dying—up to Saturday, March 28—was one out of 44,911.
In Erie County, six people have died from COVID-19, as of March 28. With a population of 925,528, the chance of death as of this writing is one in 154,254. That will certainly worsen, but those are the facts today. Acknowledging this doesn’t diminish the tragedy of lost lives or provide comfort to families of the deceased. But it offers perspective for the rest of us.
It’s important to differentiate between risk to the United States as a nation, and individual risk. The danger COVID-19 poses for the country is great, while any single person’s risk is currently—as the CDC says—relatively low. It will grow worse before it gets better, but understanding the facts can help allay fear. In the words of the CDC: “Sharing the facts about COVID-19 and understanding the actual risk to yourself and people you care about can make an outbreak less stressful.”
Countless alarming articles and commentaries appear on social media daily. Social network negativity has been shown to undesirably impact how others feel. Yet, few, if any, posts amid this hyper-politicized election-year crises aim at calming the emotionally anxious. Such efforts are viewed by some as providing aid and comfort to the enemy. And who are the enemy? People who don’t adhere to the recommendations of experts. Those gathering in groups in defiance of Governor Cuomo’s “pause” mandate. Hobby Lobby billionaire-founder David Green, who won’t provide sick leave for his employees. Conspiracy theorists. Anyone wanting to get the country back to work soon despite the best advice of medical experts, as President Trump has talked of doing. As a result, what information is shared, and what is not, has become entangled with politics.
Last week Governor Cuomo twice mentioned that the increase in COVID-19 cases is slowing slightly. Instead of the number doubling every two and a half days, it’s now doubling every four days. This is encouraging evidence that social distancing is paying off—proof that we should stay the course.
According to the CDC, “Stress during an infectious disease outbreak can include:
•Fear and worry about your own health and the health of your loved ones
•Changes in sleep or eating patterns
•Difficulty sleeping or concentrating
•Worsening of chronic health problems
•Increased use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs
If you, or anyone you know, seems overly stressed, you can find information on the CDC website. And for the sake of those under severe mental strain, it’s important to offer encouraging facts. As the Mayo Clinic puts it, Prepare, prevent and don’t panic about COVID-19. In addition, New York State's Office of Mental Health offers an emotional support line that provides free and confidential support, helping callers experiencing increased anxiety due to the coronavirus emergency. The help line is staffed by volunteers, including mental health professionals, who have received training in crisis counseling. Here's the number: 1-844-863-9314.
Long Story Short is an opinion column by artist and educator Bruce Adams, a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.
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