Dispatches from Quarantine: Grocery stories from the CORONA isle – a conversation with a hero who’s fighting to keep us fed

Dispatches from Quarantine: Grocery stories from the CORONA isle – a conversation with a hero who’s fighting to keep us fed

What's it like working in grocery stores during COVID-19?

VicesApril 10, 2020 By Will Brendza

The days are starting to blur together.

News is moving faster than it’s ever moved in my lifetime, “home offices” have now just become “offices,” the planet is taking its first real breath in over 100 years, people are dying, people are sick, people are bored and we’re another week closer to the end of this thing — whenever that might actually be.

But, at least it seems we may be through the worst of this CORONA pandemic. At the beginning of this week, the US surgeon general predicted that it would be the worst so far, and truly, it was: on Wednesday the national death toll rose to 1,922 people in a single day — 779 of those deaths on Wednesday were in New York alone. They expect that by August, there will be some 60,415 Americans dead.

This week, however, was supposed to be the turning point — the apex of the outbreak in the US. We may be on the downhill side of all this, but there’s still a lot to be done.

And still, the Orange Menace in the White House continues to politicize the situation. Colorado’s democratic Governor Jared Polis has been begging for respirators and more hospital supplies from Trump for weeks, and has been ignored for weeks. But when Colorado’s Republican senator asked, Trump granted his request almost immediately.

Yes, the madness feels inescapable. Everywhere you look there are reminders that life is not as it was, every conversation seems to somehow drift back to The Virus, every pang of restlessness leads to the same exercises and the same places. There aren’t many things to go do, except shop at hardware stores, liquor stores, dispensaries, gun shops, and, of course, grocery stores.

The latter of which, is my favorite current outing. Never before have grocery stores been so strange and exciting. Never before have they felt so dystopian. People walk around wearing masks over their faces, avoiding each other with huge berths. Many of the shelves are empty: it’s almost impossible to find toilet paper, tissue paper, paper towels, baking supplies or pasta.

And the people who work at our grocery stores have never been more important than they are right now. They are heroes — working furiously to keep the shelves stocked, to maintain grocery order, exposing themselves to hundreds of people a day in the process.

“Jordan” (as we’ll call him) is one of those brave souls. He works at Whole Foods. His whole career is on the front lines of this fight to keep Colorado fed, and nearly everything about his job has been turned on its head.

“After they put out the stay at home order, there was a week where everything was absolutely nuts,” Jordan says. It was like every single day was Thanksgiving, he describes. “For our Whole Foods and I know, for like five or six other Whole Foods in the region, that was the most the stores had ever done in history.”

Some of the customers that Jordan has dealt with express great gratitude, thanking him profusely for still coming in to work and putting himself at risk. Which, he says, feels really good to know he’s appreciated.  

Other customers, however, aren’t quite so congenial. People who will ask him a question and then freak out when he takes a step towards them; or people who are so paranoid and uptight, they can’t help but treat others like garbage; people who are pissed that the store is out of their favorite food; or people who get upset when they’re told they can only take so many packages of toilet paper.

“[Those interactions] can really go one way or the other, 50-50,” Jordan says.

Luckily, his supervisor has stepped up to protect the employees from any kind of customer harassment. Jordan told me that, as employees, if someone is being rude or mean or unnecessarily abrasive, his supervisor has told everyone they can just walk away and find him to take care of the issue. If people answer the phone and someone’s yelling, they’ve been instructed to simply hang up.

“It’s really cool to see a supervisor standing up for his co-workers like that,” says Jordan, who has worked in the grocery industry for a long time. “You wouldn’t ever hear them say, ‘just walk away,’ or ‘just hang up the phone’ before all this.”

And, at Whole Foods in particular, the employees are being very well cared for, according to Jordan. If you’re sick, or think you’re sick, or just don’t want to come in, employees have been instructed to just stay home — without penalties. If someone gets sick they have two weeks of paid time off. If someone can’t get into work because their kids aren’t in school, Whole Foods will pay you to stay at home and take care of your little ones. Every employee is getting paid $2 extra an hour, and they can take on as much overtime as they want. (If that sounds appealing to you, they’re also hiring.)

Whole foods is even offering masks and gloves for free for their employees who want to wear them. Jordan says he isn’t quite there, yet. He still feels safe going into work, and just washing his hands 1,500-2,000 times a day. But he finds it admirable that Amazon (who now owns Whole Foods) set aside all those supplies just for their employees.

“Whole Foods and Amazon are really taking care of us and making sure that employees are hooked up.”

But they also have to exercise certain extra precautions that feel pretty Orwellian, according to Jordan. Employees are now required to get their temperature taken before they can even enter the store. If their temperature is over 100.4-degrees they have to go home and take three days off. They cannot return until the fever is gone.

“It's like a zombie movie where they're trying to like, check and see who has the virus or something,” he says chuckling at the surreal-ness of it all. “Everybody has to prove that they don't have it, in to order to get in.”

Never before, though, have grocers had such an important and commendable role to play in society. Their job is the same as it was, sure: stock the shelves, answer questions, help people get what they need. But now, in the age of the Coronavirus, that job has taken on a whole new level of significance. People like Jordan are not only making sure that our pantries and fridges stay stocked, but they’re literally maintaining social order.

Because, if the shelves of grocery stores go empty, regardless of a shortage or not, people will panic wholesale. Which, Jordan really wants to avoid.

“People should know that, there are no shortages. There’s enough food and toilet paper for everyone, as long as people aren’t panic buying,” he says. “Please stop panic buying.”

In fact, the only way shortages will actually happen is because of panic buying, he asserts. Destabilizing the demand, destabilizes the supply, and that could actually lead to real shortages of food and supplies in the stores — and it would have nothing to do with COVID-19 itself. It would be a fear-driven shortage, not a virus-caused one.

We can avoid that. We just have to keep our heads on our shoulders.

If we can do that, Jordan and all of the other grocery store employees, can make sure that everyone has access to the food and supplies they want and need.

Jordan and thousands of others like him, across the nation and in fact across the globe, are the unsung heroes of this pandemic. They deserve all the appreciation and gratitude that we can afford right now, because they are quite literally on the front lines of the Corona pandemic. It’s not such an exaggeration to suggest that, by the end of this, we may owe them our lives.

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Next week: We’ll talk with some folks in Colorado’s wide world of alcohol, to get a taste for life on the other end of the booze that’s keeping us buzzed