For most of us, it’s been 32 days.
Thirty-two days since the real beginning of a coronavirus invading our neighborhoods and communities. I remember the night that everything changed—I was at work, stocking grocery shelves.
Numerous news outlets would later say that three events in succession on March 11th made America wake up to the threat of the coronavirus. Though the WHO declared a global pandemic that morning, other events were somehow taken more seriously.
I learned of each event as it happened, news about COVID-19 spreading through the grocery co-op I work at like wildfire between departments. First, Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson announced on Instagram that he had tested positive for COVID-19 while abroad in Australia for a film shooting. Later that night, the leader of our country banned travel between the United States and twenty-six countries in Europe for 30 days. Finally, the NBA announced the suspension of the basketball season after a Utah Jazz player tested positive for the virus.
The effect these stories had on the public was palpable. I had already noticed it was a busy night for a Wednesday; it’s likely that some people were already taking notice of the global situation upon hearing the pandemic announcement. I could feel the shift in the public mindset and my own. It was like a light being turned on or waking up from a good dream (or ignorance). The next day, I noticed more people in our small store, fuller baskets and carts, and panicked expressions as people tried to navigate physically, mentally, and emotionally through our draining aisles.
Five days later on March 16th and our bulk aisle was closed, along with our salad bar, deli, and hot bar. That same day our store hours were reduced. On March 18th the co-op put a customer capacity limit at 50 for each store, with a limit of 30 for the first hour that was intended for elderly and immunocompromised shoppers. March 30th—customer capacity reduced to 30 at any time of day.
Throughout all of this, new daily cleaning schedules were implemented in the mornings and evenings during closed hours. Plexiglass shields were hung to protect cashiers. Reusable bags were banned from the store (though customers can still transport their food in their cart to the foyer or their car and bag their groceries in reusable bags there). Announcements are made every 20-30 minutes to remind customers to stay six feet away from other customers and staff, to limit the number of people in their shopping groups, to remind them to shop for more than 2 days’ worth of food at a time, and to only touch products they intend to buy.
Our communications team made stickers and then reusable (and washable) laminated placards for staff to wear on our backs while we work in the store. They read, “For my safety and yours, PLEASE STAY 6′ BACK” with yellow and black stripes that remind me of a construction site. I still remember the first time I was kneeling to stock a bottom shelf and a customer appeared behind me to reach for a can of tomatoes that was in front of my face. It happened again yesterday.
Sometimes I wonder how I ended up here, working for a grocery store 2 months before the first global pandemic in more than one hundred years. Some days are better than others, but overall I feel extremely grateful to have a job. It’s a mantra that I repeat to myself again and again in dark mornings while I get ready for work. I worry that today is the day I will be unknowingly exposed to COVID-19, despite the fact that I wash my hands 20 times a day, never touch my face, disinfect my phone when I get home, change my clothes (and wear the same clothes to work daily), and shower immediately before even sitting in a chair. I am so careful, and deep down I know that it will probably not be enough.
I am lucky to work with such a great team of coworkers and leaders and am grateful to have been welcomed so warmly to a new co-op site after having hours cut at my home site. It’s clear that our community in and outside of the co-op has come together in the last month, and it makes it a little easier to go to work every day.
If you’re ever in Madison, Wisconsin, make a point to visit one of the Willy St. Co-op locations. It really is like a family that will welcome you back over and over again. These are challenging times, and nothing is perfect, but I am immensely proud of the ways the co-op has adapted to this ever-changing situation.
Stay safe, everyone.