I work at a medium-sized grocery store in Montreal’s Plateau neighbourhood. It’s the kind of place that gets a lot of regulars—mostly students and locals—and fills up quickly on weekends. We’re used to having busy days, but the past couple weeks have been beyond hectic.
On Thursday, March 12, the Quebec government announced that it was closing all schools, libraries and other public places more than 250 people could gather in an attempt to stop the spread of coronavirus. The next day the store was the busiest I’ve ever seen it. I think people started to realize how serious the COVID-19 pandemic actually was. Hundreds of people showed up throughout the day to stock up on food.
Our store has six cash registers. The day after the government’s announcement we had to keep all of them open from 10 a.m. until close. There were lineups down the aisles all the way to the back of the store, and people were waiting 20 or 30 minutes just to pay. We also had a line of about 30 people outside for most of the afternoon. It was nuts. I didn’t have time to eat lunch, and whenever one of us on cash had to use the bathroom, we’d have to bring in a coworker off the floor to cover for us—we couldn’t afford to close any of the tills, even for five minutes.
Since then, the atmosphere in the store has been different. I can tell people are anxious. Customers are mostly being considerate and giving each other space, but whenever someone coughs or sneezes everyone turns around to make sure that person sneezed into their elbow. A couple of times I’ve heard customers yelling at each other to cover their mouths. People also stop and chat less. I’m used to striking up conversations with people at the till or in the aisles while I’m stocking fridges, but that’s happening far less—everyone just wants to get in and out.
Photo: Courtesy Jehanne Hodge
I know there’s a lot of misinformation out there because I’ve seen customers come in wearing some strange get ups. Lots of people arrive with scarves wrapped around their faces. One guy even came in with a plastic Walmart bag wrapped around his entire head, with a slit cut out for his eyes.
We’re taking some steps for safety: our manager gave us gloves to wear, which is good, but he hasn’t installed any plexiglass shields at the cash like some other stores have. We’ve also started limiting the number of customers who are allowed in the store at once. That made me feel much more comfortable at work.
A lot of my coworkers have left—some are students who have gone home to live with their parents, while others just didn’t want to work a public-facing job during the pandemic. We had to hire a few new people last week so that we weren’t understaffed.
If I can find a way to afford to cut back on my hours I’d like to. Even though my store is taking precautions, I still come into contact with a bunch of people every day which can be scary. Grocery store workers across Canada are putting their health at risk every time they come in to work, but a lot of us are still making close to minimum wage. I realized that I feel more exhausted than normal even though I’m working the same hours. I think that it just mentally takes more out of you.
There have been some moments of kindness in the midst of the chaos. I’ve overheard people talking on the phone who sounded as though they were organizing grocery deliveries for others who were stuck at home. And this past weekend I had a very nice lady thank us for continuing to work. She told me and she thought we were very brave—I really appreciated that.
I strongly encourage people to stay home as much as possible, and only grocery shop when they really need to. They can protect our health by helping us making sure our stores don’t get too crowded.
And when you do head to the store, try to remember to say something kind to the people working. I know everyone is worried, and wants to talk about the pandemic, but it’s hard to be having the same scary conversations day after day. Instead, tell us a funny anecdote, or about something nice that happened to you that week. We’ll appreciate the distraction, and you’ll make our day just a bit brighter.