CORONAVIRUS

Grocers find themselves on the front lines of coronavirus pandemic

Although taking precautions, employees put their health at risk to serve their community

Janet Nost wears gloves as she scans customer's groceries at Gary's Foods, 715 First Avenue S, in Mount Vernon, Iowa, on
Janet Nost wears gloves as she scans customer’s groceries at Gary’s Foods, 715 First Avenue S, in Mount Vernon, Iowa, on Friday, March 27, 2020. The grocery store has special hours for senior citizens, pregnant women and others with difficulties. Workers also disinfect carts and common surfaces at checkout aisles. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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When employees at Gary’s Foods in Mount Vernon go to work every day, they shield themselves with an armor of gloves and masks so their customers can get the groceries they need to ride out the novel coronavirus from the shelter of their homes.

When the first wave of panic hit Gary’s Foods as the initial COVID-19 cases were reported earlier this month in Iowa, the local grocery store with 60 employees saw triple the amount of customers than usual, emptying shelves of toilet paper and canned goods.

“We’re used to the panic buying when we have a blizzard, but that only lasts for a day or two,” said owner Denny Dietrich, who also is a board member of the Iowa Grocery Industry Association. “With a week and a half of panic buying, it not only sucked everything out of the store, but everything out of our warehouse.”

Grocery store workers across the United States find themselves on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, putting their health at risk to serve their communities. Grocers including Aldi, Fareway and Hy-Vee have announced programs to reward their front-line employees with such things as temporary pay increases, bonuses or additional time off. Many of the stores have reduced the hours they are open to the public so they can do additional cleaning, and many are installing clear shields between their cashiers and customers.

While some employees have opted to stay home, Gary’s Foods has received dozens of applications from people who are either looking for extra work or just want to be helpful.

In an effort to protect staff and customers, Gary’s Foods, like many grocers, has implemented a rigorous cleaning schedule — wiping down carts and door handles often. The grocery store provides gloves and hand sanitizer for all employees on the clock, and has had some donations of homemade face masks from Lucy Dietrich, Denny Dietrich’s mother, and Arlie Willems.

The store has halted its full-service bakery and is now selling packaged doughnuts. It also temporarily discontinued giving free coffee to customers at the front of the store.

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Brother’s Market in Lisbon is on a strict cleaning schedule as well and, like others, is installing partitions at the register between customers and cashiers. The local grocery store has reduced store hours to allow for extra cleaning.

“I think people are really respectful of the fact the associates and these stores are stepping out,” said Jim Longcor, store director of Brother’s Market, which employs about 30 people. “Most of us haven’t had a day off in four weeks. We’re making sure we’re ready to go and employees are staying safe.”

In Solon, volunteers are delivering groceries to residents from Sam’s Main Street Market. Local residents have offered the employees gift cards to restaurants and shops “for stepping up,” owner Sam Lensing said.

The store has posted a notice at the door asking customers who feel sick not to come in, instead offering delivery or carryout.

Lensing said some employees are afraid to come into work, so staff is a little tight right now.

“The first week was pretty chaotic,” Lensing said. “Now my worry is people getting so stir crazy they come to the grocery store just to socialize.”

Clark’s Pharmacy in Cedar Rapids has closed its gift shop and is asking customers to pick up medication at the drive-up window, curbside or have it delivered.

“Our drive-up window has saved us. There hasn’t been the wait time we feared,” owner Craig Clark said.

Clark’s 15 employees are practicing social distancing “as much as possible,” Clark said, working at stations 6 feet apart in two rooms and crossing paths as little as possible.

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Two employees, a woman who is eight months’ pregnant and a delivery driver who is in an at-risk age group for COVID-19, have opted to stay home. A temporary driver was hired.

Clark’s Pharmacy has instituted new policies for deliveries. The driver will take the package to the door, go to the vehicle and call the patient to let him or her know the order is waiting outside.

This also allows the pharmacy to “keep tabs” on patients and make sure they are well enough to come to the door to retrieve their medication, Clark said.

Clark said some patients have been “edgy,” wanting an extra supply of their prescription.

Clark understands that, but if the pharmacy gives everyone an extra supply it will be short in a couple months, he said.

“We’ve always cared deeply for our customers,” Clark said. “Now, it’s more of a personal care for the community. We look at our position during this COVID-19 crisis as keeping the patients out of the hospital.”

Comments: (319) 368-8664; grace.king@thegazette.com

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Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.