Pandemic Chronicles: surviving supermarket stress

What's it like to be behind the check stand during the pandemic?

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Lisa Stamm, a retired caterer from Reno, braves the wilds of the aisles in once-per-week shopping trips.

When Lisa Carrier returned home March 16 after working a 13-hour shift at Raley’s supermarket in Sparks, she broke down and wept.

Her tears weren’t caused by exhaustion, although she was dead on her feet. And it wasn’t a release of fear or uncertainty, although those emotions were universal that day, when the spread of the COVID virus was declared a national emergency. She cried because of what she saw in the eyes of every customer who came through her check stand.

“People were in a state of panic,” Carrier said. “The looks on their faces, the terrible fear. They had never experienced this. We as checkers never experienced it. I never saw people with such panic in their eyes, and we never had to work so fast to get these people in and out so that they were OK.”

There was no time to react during the day, she said. Everyone just grit their teeth, did their jobs and tried to help each other and the customers. “Our whole crew, we just did it,” she said. “Then when I came home, it hit me. Oh, my God, this is going to be really bad.”

After 37 years with the company, doing jobs from checkout to stocking to accounting, Carrier knew she provided an essential service, but she never imagined it would become hazardous duty. The first two weeks of the pandemic—the days of the Great Toilet Paper Rush—were edgy for both employees and shoppers. Customers were stressed and worried amid predictions of millions of deaths. Some complained the virus was over-hyped; others feared it was airborne and everywhere. People who appeared healthy could be infected, they soon learned, and the bug survived on hard and soft surfaces. Panic was contagious. Fear stalked the aisles.

COURTESY/LISA CARRIER: Lisa Carrier has worked for Raley’s for 37 years.

But by the last week of March, “things leveled out,” Carrier said. Raley’s, which owns and operates 129 grocery stores in Nevada and California, reacted quickly—establishing safety protocols and procedures and adjusting them as new guidelines were issued, she said.

“The company is doing everything it can to remain as safe as possible,” Carrier said. “We have our temperatures taken every day. We wear masks. The check stands are completely sanitized. We continuously spray all the carts and sanitize all the door handles and high-touch areas.”

Check stands are a key area of concern in all grocery stores. That’s where everything—employees, customers, products, cash, credit cards—converges at one point. Things many people have touched are handled by checkers who then move on to the next customer’s purchases. Shoppers have to linger an arm’s length away from clerks who collect payments, make change or may have to check their identification for liquor or tobacco sales. Without safety measures, the cash register area is a perfect crossroads for contagion.

In Raley’s, Plexiglas shields are now installed at the check stands and decals on the floor indicate social distancing spaces for shoppers in line. A monitor outside the main door keeps tabs on the number of people entering to ensure the market doesn’t exceed 50-percent occupancy. “Everybody is doing what they need to be doing in staying six feet apart,” Carrier said. “If we’re stocking and someone needs something on a shelf, we’ll back off for you. If you are picking up a prescription, we’ll bring it out to you so you don’t have to come inside. … At my store, we totally get it. Safety for everyone is the main concern.”

Nationwide, at least 30 grocery store workers have died from COVID so far, and at least 3,000 have symptoms or have been exposed, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. In Nevada, officials reported that several grocery store employees have tested positive for COVID, although a total wasn’t available. As the risk increased, some employees’ pay went up a bit. Raley’s gave bonuses averaging about $500 to its hourly employees in April and another is planned. Walmart Inc. is giving hourly workers bonuses up to $300 while Kroger Co also announced a one-time bonus of up to $300 for its hourly workers. Safeway has temporarily given employees a $2 per hour pay bump.

The risks of the job have decreased, but haven’t vanished. On April 10, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak issued safety guidelines for grocery and convenience stores, some of which were already in place at Raley’s and a few other local markets. Costco has gone beyond the guidelines and now limits its members to two shoppers per visit and requires all customers to wear face masks inside its stores, making it the first major U.S. retailer to do so.

For customers, what was usually a routine, mundane chore is now almost a mission behind enemy lines. “It’s like getting ready for D-Day,” said Flo Tanaka of Reno, who was preparing to enter the Walmart at Mae Anne Avenue and North McCarran Boulevard on April 30. “My mask, my gloves, my baggie with wipes, my cell phone, my debit card ready so I don’t have to fumble around with my wallet. … Here’s my (shopping) list. I’m all set to hit the beach.”

Tanaka, who limits her food shopping to once a week, said she gets nervous in stores because not everyone observes the six-foot separation rule and “so many people aren’t wearing masks. I don’t know what’s wrong with some people who still get right up close to you and talk. Or the ones who come in with the whole family and browse like they’re in a fun gift shop. Have they been living under a rock? If they don’t take this seriously fine, but don’t drag me into your idiocy. Wear a mask to protect others even if you don’t care about yourself!”

But she said she shouldn’t complain because “I’ve noticed most people I see, strangers, are going out of their way to be friendly, even though it’s maybe just a nod or a wave when you walk by on the other side of the street or a parking lot.” Tanaka’s theory: people who were polite before the pandemic have become even more considerate during the lock-down. Jerks, meanwhile, have allowed the crisis to amplify their faults.

Supermarket employees and patrons said the use of masks increased during the last two weeks of April. An unscientific survey of four supermarkets in north and west Reno and one in Sparks—in which customers who entered were observed during several 20-minute intervals during the afternoons of April 28, 29 and 30—revealed that, on average, between 50 and 70 percent of customers were wearing face coverings, depending on the store. Overall, shoppers ages 50 and older were more likely to be wearing masks. Men between the ages of 30 and 50 represented most of the barefaced customers.

Eric, who is in his late 20s and declined to give his last name, said he didn’t wear a mask when shopping at Save Mart on North McCarran on April 28 because unless the face coverings are hospital grade, they can’t filter viruses. That’s true, but when told that cloth masks are worn to protect other people from catching anything from the person wearing the mask, he was unimpressed. “I’m not sick,” he said. An explanation about asymptomatic carriers of the virus also fell upon deaf ears. “I just don’t like masks,” he said. “It’s not a law.” He came out of the store about 10 minutes later carrying a half-gallon of orange juice, twirling it by its jug handle like an Old West gunslinger showing off his Colt Peacemaker.

Inside the stores visited during the last week of April, most customers appeared observant of the six-foot spacing rule, sometimes dodging other cart-pushers as though they might be radioactive. Some markets, like the Safeway on North McCarran Boulevard, now have one-way aisles. Those who walk against the flow are quickly corrected—sometimes gently, sometimes stridently—by other customers. Stores with wider aisles, like the Sparks Raley’s, haven’t converted to one-way traffic, but shoppers still give each other a wide berth. On a recent visit to that store, a woman in her 60s was observed closely studying the labels on pairs of rubber gloves hanging from hooks. A 40-ish woman pushing her cart in the opposite direction stopped and waited more than six feet away from the older shopper.
The older woman realized she and her cart were in the way and apologized through her mask. “Oh, so sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t bring my reading glasses. I’m taking too much time.” The younger woman was also masked, but her eyes betrayed her smile. “No worries. Take your time,” she said. “Believe me; I’m not in a hurry. It’s not like I have to get to an appointment. This is the high point of my day.”

And it’s a necessary—and often stressful—part of most people’s weeks. Lisa Stamm of Reno said she has shopped at Trader Joe’s, Costco and Raley’s on Mayberry Drive during the pandemic. “I think Trader Joe’s is doing the best job,” she said. “They really regulate the number of people in the store at one time. They have somebody handing you your cart and wiping it off at the same time. They really keep an eye on social distancing, and everywhere you look an employee is wiping things down.”

She said Raley’s sanitation measures also are obvious, such as the availability of sanitary wipes throughout the store, hand sanitizer available at check stands, a hand-washing station at the entrance and all employees are wearing masks. It’s the other customers, rather than store employees, who can be a problem, she said.

“I can’t believe the number of people not wearing masks,” Stamm said. “I’m glad Costco made it mandatory. I wish all the stores would do that.”

She said she also has observed examples of the species Jerkus Americanus in the wilds of the aisles: “Some people are just fools. It’s amazing to me. I watched one guy the other day, no mask, rubbing his face and eyes and touching everything he passed. I’m thinking, ‘why don’t you just leave?!’ I try to get in and out as quickly as possible. … For the most part I think people are really being considerate, really being nice,” Stamm said.
Most stores have two-per-customer quotas on paper products, and some have purchase limits on milk, eggs, cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer, water, diapers, wipes, formula and baby food. Those rules annoy some customers, but store employees said most people accept the need for such rationing to discourage hoarding.

Carrier, who worked at the Keystone Raley’s for 25 years before being transferred to Sparks, said most customers have been relatively calm after the first week or two of the lock-down. “The customers have been awesome,” she said. “There are always a few who complain about (limits on purchases) and may want to argue, but most are very good and thank us for doing the service. Many tell us they couldn’t do it without us. That makes you feel good, feel like you had a good day at work.”

She cried at the end of that first day, but never again. Now she comes home, changes her clothes in the garage, and rubs her hands—lately the texture of a lobster shell—with yet another coating of Purell. She said she feels confident she isn’t bringing sickness home to her partner, who is retired. Carrier is 54 and healthy, but she said one thing that kept her going in those early hectic days of the lock-down was the reaction of customers who are decades older than she is—and at much greater risk from the pandemic.

“They were children during the Great Depression, children of the Dust Bowl,” she said. “They said that hard times can last a long time, but we’ll get through this. … This pandemic is going to be forever embedded in all the people who lived through it. We need to be able to look back and say it was a time when we helped other people, we worked together.”

Lisa Carrier, Raley’s employee

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3 Comments

  1. Ok Fear mongers. I’ve had enough of your rag. You used to print a few Libertarian articles that had some Free Thoughts. Now you just tow the bullshit line of MSM and Big Pharma. You may as well go get real jobs and shut this POS down. Cheers!

  2. Always amazes me how selfish many people are; they’re only inside of stores for a few minutes but employees must spend eight hours or more. Seems like the least anyone can do is wear a mask to help prevent these workers from falling ill with a potentially lethal virus. Yet so many are all about themselves. I was at the Sparks Raley’s today, the first time in weeks because I’m trying to avoid the ignorant louts who won’t wear masks, won’t socially distance, and the smug looks on their faces makes me want to smack them. My bad, but that’s my observation. Some people are a waste of protoplasm.

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