Grocery workers ‘sanitizing every time there’s not a customer’ — and taking pandemic precautions in stride

By | April 4, 2020

Joe Carson is still his usual, chirpy self while bagging groceries, even if it seems more impersonal when it happens behind a glass shield.

From his demeanour at the Family Foods in St. James, you wouldn’t guess the risk he takes every day by being here.

When he must pass between customers, Carson discreetly tilts his head and covers his mouth with his jacket.

He doesn’t make a scene of the ways the coronavirus looms over him.

“I come with a little bit of worry. I have a sick parent at home,” says the 25-year-old, a supervisor at the grocery store.

He’s trying to protect his father at home, whose immune system has been battered by chemotherapy.

“It’s a little bit stressful to come into work, but I have a really good staff, a really good crew to work with.”

While a global pandemic closes surrounding businesses, grocery stores are still welcoming a population otherwise urged to stay home, to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Their employees are vulnerable, at risk of exposure as they deal with packed stores and frustrated customers. They’re called heroes for showing up.

Around those employees, Winnipeg’s grocery stores have changed to adapt to the new protocols.

Store workers are wiping the handles of shopping carts. Many are wearing gloves; some are donning masks. There are Plexiglas screens at checkouts, where cashiers and customers were previously face-to-face. 

Throughout the Family Foods in St. James, customers are reminded of the cleanliness precautions the store is taking to protect everyone during a global pandemic. (Ian Froese/CBC)

When he’s wearing gloves, Carson discards a pair every half hour. He will probably wash his hands raw by the time this pandemic is over. 

“We’re sanitizing every time there’s not a customer,” Carson said on Friday.

He tries to wipe down the handheld debit machine or any other surface when he isn’t punching the cash register.

“It’s a learning curve right now, remembering all the tasks we have to do.”

The importance of rigorous disinfection duties was hammered home Friday, when the Real Canadian Superstore on Regent Avenue West was closed for a “deep cleaning” because one staff member is suspected of contracting the virus.

A Superstore employee in Oshawa, Ont., died from the coronavirus last month.

Most customers at Carson’s store get the idea. They see posters instructing customers to keep their distance.

Those who don’t understand the need for physical distancing, or don’t want to, are sticking out.

“Make sure you tell him that people are mean and yelling at us,” pipes up one of Carson’s colleagues, who didn’t want her name used.

Those people are in the minority, Carson insists. It doesn’t dismiss the precautions of everybody else.

“The other thing that’s really changed is the amount of people that have been gracious,” he says. “Thank you for coming to work,” they’re saying.

Customers’ support validating

“It means the world to us to hear that because we also want to be at home and self-isolating … but we’re here and when you do your part to help us, it really helps us.

“It really validates what we’re doing.” 

At the Foodfare farther west along Portage Avenue, a hand sanitizer station is rolling through the front door.

Owner Munther Zeid was sent a photo of one of these dispensers from his buddy Scott Clement, owner of Dakota Family Foods on St. Mary’s Road.

“He says, ‘What do you think of this?’ I say, ‘Send it my way.'”

By the next day, Zeid had one in his store.

His approach to combating COVID-19 is evolving. Soon, he’ll have full face shields available to his employees. They had been wearing face masks, but he found staff kept touching their face to adjust their coverings.

There are other recent changes at Zeid’s store. It’s tripled the usual number of home deliveries. Staff who lost their jobs earlier in the pandemic have been rehired.

Deanna Montpetit says the grocery business has been busy, with fears heightened over COVID-19. She says it’s tough to keep shelves stocked while everyone is trying to keep their distance. (Ian Froese/CBC)

Some employees, such as Deanna Montpetit, have increased hours. Her other job as a substitute educational assistant has dried up without in-person classes.

With the heightened sanitization requirements and orders to stay apart, working at the grocery store is busier and more exhausting.

“It’s hard to get the shelves stocked and give someone their space if they’re trying to shop,” she said, while filling a cart with groceries for a customer staying at home.

“It’s like a family here,” she continued. “A lot of the customers are very nice about everything. You do get that odd customer — but they’re scared, right? They’re showing the part that they’re scared.”

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