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An Essential Worker, Grocer Has Seen Panic, Anxiety In Food Aisle

The coronavirus pandemic has fed fears of both getting sick and food scarcity. And that’s infused grocery shopping with more anxiety for customers and workers. 

Guido’s Fresh Marketplace in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, has posted some new signs in its store. 

Above the water bottle refill station: "Not for handwashing. Please use restroom."

"Please be kind. Don’t take our toilet paper," plead more signs in the restroom. 

"We have it on the mirror above the sink, above the toilet paper dispenser and also on the bathroom doors," said Erica Heinlein, a Guido's employee for 13 years. "We were losing toilet paper in an astonishing amount."

'People were just all over us'

Things in the store started changing back in March, just as the governors of New York, and then Massachusetts, declared states of emergency. Heinlein, who manages the natural foods department in the Great Barrington store, said that's when sales started to jump.

"We were up 300, 400%. And it was just a scramble to keep up with it in the store," Heinlein said. "And then the energy changed and it became this...this panic and fear and anxiety just bleeding off of the customers."

Typically the customers are people the grocers have seen before from places like Stockbridge, Sheffield or Hinsdale, Mass., or Dutchess and Columbia counties in New York. But Heinlein said a couple of waves of new customers — second homeowners — arrived, buying up so they could hunker down.

Before coming, Heinlein said, they phoned.

"We're leaving New York City," they'd say. "There's no food on shelves. Do you have food on your shelves?"

"Yes. Yes, we do have food," employees would answer. "There are some holes, but we have plenty of food."

"Do you have lettuce?" they'd ask, "What about meat?"

"We took call after call after call like that. People fleeing Boston with the same thing," Heinlein recalled. "And we all just kind of had these wide eyes like — wow."

Customers were buying several thousand dollars worth of food at a time. With the panic, norms flew out the window.

"People were just all over us. They were grabbing things out of our hands. They were just — it was a lot," said Heinlein.

'Spread so thin both physically and mentally'

Heinlein and her colleagues now face a long list of challenges: keeping the store sanitized, the shelves stocked and employees comfortable. But not everyone who wants to work, can. 

"Because they live with someone who [has] a compromised immune system or perhaps they're compromised themselves," explained Heinlein. "And I had to talk a lot of staff through this angst...They were so torn between duty and personal cost."

For a while, the spike in demand affected supply. The store would place a $30,000 order and get $800 worth. So it started adding new food distributors, with new delivery schedules, so staff schedules had to change. Workers were stressed. Heinlein, who supervises more than 30 people, tried to alleviate that.

"'Take a day, take a couple weeks. Work in the mornings, work at night,'" she would say to staff members. "So for weeks I was in this reworking [of] staff [schedules]. Then we had a sudden deadline change for our distributor. I had to redo it all, you know, at the 11th hour. And that happened like week after week after week. I felt like Elastigirl, just being spread so thin both physically and mentally."

Her work days got longer.

Now, staffing levels are still thin, but stabilized. Heinlein is stocking shelves more, doing more carry out, and bagging. By the end of the week she’s limping on a previously injured knee.

Besides work, she raises two sons, with her ex-husband.

"My 15-year-old is a freshman at Pittsfield High. He has special needs. He's autistic. He's on the spectrum," she said "And my 10-year-old is a fifth grader at Egremont Elementary."

Doing laundry, she jokes, is her alone time. Her pandemic schedule sounds like a never-ending drumbeat.

"Work, mom, work, mom, work, mom," she explained.

She picks her boys up from their dad’s at about 5:30 at night and fixes dinner.

"Have a little bit of parenting time, and then we're all wiped out and we get up early. And we have a tutoring session," said Heinlein. "We get out the door and get the kids back to their dad's. I shoot down to the store, repeat."

'People are all of a sudden seeing us as people'

Heinlein said for a period about a month ago, she started to feel anxious about getting the virus — or giving it to someone unwittingly.

"No thinking person doesn't stop and think, especially in this environment where people are all over you, 'OK, what happens if I get sick?' And it's like, 'Well, OK, do I need to, like, really work on my will?'" she said with a laugh. "It's like, 'OK, just calm down. One foot in front of the other.'"

She said her coworkers help her keep going. One of them carries out a detailed sanitizing regimen.

"All the cooler and case doors, all the phones, all the sanitizing towers on the sales floor, all the gravity-fed bins," she said. "All the handles of the shopping baskets."

Anything people touch.

The store has required all employees to wear masks since mid April. They’re getting extra pay now.

And only 25 shoppers are allowed in the store at a time.

Once the customers do come in – the choreography couldn’t be more different than it was two months ago when people got close enough to grab food out of workers’ hands.

"We wait a lot longer. A customer is trying to make a decision in front of shelves. We just wait until they move and then we move," she said. "Or you round the corner and you see someone unexpected. And we both go. 'Aye!' It's just...it's a really strange change."

And there’s another change.

"People are all of a sudden seeing us as people," Heinlein said. "Will that become the new normal for our country? To treat people like people, not as less than, because they do a job that you don't value?"

Part of that job right now is ringing up customers who buy two carts-full of food at a time.

Even so, Heinlein said she is starting to hear something that had left the store — the sounds of grocery workers laughing.

Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro.
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