Working through a pandemic in the produce section

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I have worked in the grocery business for over 12 years, and I have experienced things in the past three weeks that I never would have guessed would happen. 

I have witnessed at least half of the customers in our store at any given time wearing masks. I’ve walked down whole aisles cleared of merchandise. I’ve carried a letter from my employer in my wallet that designates me as “a critical infrastructure industry employee.”

The first sign I had that the coronavirus was having an impact was when I arrived at work on Friday, March 13, and customers were lined up outside the store at 6:30 a.m., the time that we usually open.

Alabama’s first case of coronavirus was announced that afternoon. 

If I had been at work on Thursday, which is my off day, I would have known that we had doubled our usual amount of sales.

Friday was the start of the busiest three days that I have ever worked – and I have been part of two store openings. I saw some people five times in those two to three days, though I know of at least one who was buying for family or friends who were already scared to get out to do their own shopping.

 We sold out of toilet paper, bottled water and meat. In my department, I couldn’t keep bagged potatoes. I doubled my produce order for Saturday, March 14, and I was already out of several items by Sunday evening. 

Stores were ordering so much that trucks that used to carry groceries for three or four stores at a time were delivering to one or two stores. Eventually, the warehouse put a limit on the number of cases that stores could receive, which was as much about giving drivers the necessary break between deliveries as controlling the supply of items. As a produce manager, I was allowed to buy from local suppliers, which isn’t normally allowed, in order to allow other departments to get what they needed.

Gloves, which are always used in my department, the meat market and our deli, were made available to all store employees. I stepped up my cleaning, hoping that customers who saw me wiping down the cases whenever I was out on the floor would feel an extra sense of security. 

I’ve always enjoyed talking to customers and have gotten to know several really well over the years, so it was hard to limit my interactions with people I hadn’t seen in a while. People didn’t stop approaching me with questions, but they kept their distance.

Several of our employees are in a high-risk category for the coronavirus because of their age, but they never missed a day of work and even offered to come in for extra shifts if it was needed.

Working in Jefferson County and living in Walker County felt like being in two worlds during that first week. By Tuesday, March 17, there were 36 cases of coronavirus in Alabama, and 20 of those were in Jefferson County. By the time Walker County’s first case was announced a couple of days later, there were over 30 cases in Jefferson County.

Even when non-essential businesses were asked to close and people were asked to shelter in place in Jefferson County, I knew that I was going to be needed at work every day no matter how bad things got because people were going to need groceries. 

I certainly knew that I was possibly exposing my wife and our son to the virus every day when I came home, but the best I could do was shower as soon as I came home and wash my hands like everyone else was being told to do.

Since I was going to the store every day anyway, I stocked our pantry with enough to get us through the two-week quarantine in case I got sick or Jen got sick because she was still going to work too. Unlike me, she could at least do some of her work from home and stay with our son.

Of course, she was dealing with her own stress at work as the coronavirus started causing havoc in Walker County. Sometimes, we talked about it, and sometimes we just tried to not think about it and do normal family stuff like playing tug-of-war with our dog, Tyson, and trying out “Animal Crossing,” a new game for the Nintendo Switch.

Working during the coronavirus has been stressful, but it hasn’t been as bad as walking into what was left of my produce room for the first time after the Cordova Piggly Wiggly took a direct hit from a tornado in April 2011. 

I’m thankful to have a job when a lot of people are losing theirs right now. I’m thankful that so far my family and I are healthy.

I really wish I could watch some Cubs baseball right now, though.

Zachary Cohron is the produce manager at Food Giant in Adamsville. He lives in Cordova with his wife and son.