- Courtesy Photo
- Astrid Hedbor Lague
Seven years ago, I left a nearly 15-year career as a lab technician in biochemistry for a new adventure. I like to tell people that I get paid to smile and talk about food. I work at a specialty grocery store. My usual day includes serving delicious food samples, chatting with customers about what they're planning to make for dinner, checking out customers at the register while asking about their plans for the rest of the day, and telling stories that may or may not be related to food. My customers have become my friends. I have seen babies grow into bright young children, and I have even forged friendships with what I refer to as my "collection of Swedes." Some of these people have even been to my mother's house for our Swedish Christmas party. My daughter has babysat for some of the families I've met. I love going to work every day and feel like I am doing what I am meant to do.
But these are not normal times. Since we first heard the terms "novel coronavirus," and "COVID-19," everything has changed. Suddenly, customers weren't smiling as much. There was less laughter in the store. Frightening news was coming out of Italy and elsewhere in Europe. Around the world, festivals and conventions were canceled. And then, there was a set of new travel restrictions. The first case was confirmed in Vermont. Schools were shut down and told to prepare for distance learning. Words like "pandemic," "quarantine" and "shelter in place" had arrived at our door.
This was when the panic shopping began. Our sample station closed down. The previously free-flowing employee snacks and coffee disappeared. Our shelves cleared out. First to go was hand sanitizer, then toilet paper. Wall-to-wall people filled the store. Our store broke all sales records. This was busier than Christmas or Thanksgiving, without the joy that those holidays bring. Some customers just looked confused as they piled things into their overflowing carts. Others looked halfway to terrified. Some started snapping at the workers — I had one customer tell me I was taking things out of her cart "all wrong." I went home exhausted, falling into bed for a nap before dinner. Still, the next day, I returned to work, confronted by empty shelves with no products to fill them, since we were totally unprepared for the panic. We wiped down the empty shelves with antiseptic wipes and sanitized our hands so often that they were dry as the desert. This continued for a few more days.
But our warehouses started catching up to our sales, and the shelves began filling up. The hordes started to diminish. Our company is following recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and we are sanitizing our counters, credit card terminals and hands between transactions. We are allowed to take unpaid leave if we choose to not work, and we will keep all of our benefits. If we come down with a respiratory infection (whether confirmed as COVID-19 or not), we'll get paid sick leave, which does not take away from our "normal" paid time off. If someone in the store is diagnosed with COVID-19, they will close the store for 72 hours to do an extra-deep disinfectant cleaning. (As of this writing, no one has gotten sick yet. I hope it stays that way.) We started limiting the amount of customers in the store to 30 at a time. I personally feel pretty safe in the store. I volunteered to run the line for a day, explaining our limit to customers while handing them a freshly sanitized cart or basket. Most customers are understanding. Many people have thanked us for keeping the store open. We have been deemed an essential business, and I carry an official letter stating that I work for a grocery store in my purse.
My husband, the owner of an automotive shop, is also still working. We are lucky that our children are teenagers and can be at home by themselves, finishing up their school year on their computers. Much-anticipated choir concerts and plays have been called off. My son will not get the chance to be the most adorable, 4'10" Gomez in the middle school production of The Addams Family. My daughter's big junior/senior music department trip to New York City was canceled. Instead of celebrating my daughter's 17th birthday with a big party, we got take-out sushi. But, so far at least, we are healthy and safe.
So, I'll continue to put on my uniform T-shirt and head into what some are calling the front lines. I look forward to when this is all over and I can get back to being paid to smile and talk to people about food.