Outside of a hospital, the busiest places during the coronavirus pandemic have been grocery stores. We talked to one grocer in charge of nine stores in Pennsylvania about what it’s like on the frontlines.
“Just yesterday, my office manager said, ‘My God, you look deflated and you look tired.’ And I said, ‘You know, it’s not the hours. It’s not the stress. It’s not the chaos. It’s just the worrying,’” said Joe Fasula, co-owner of Gerrity’s Supermarket. “The constant worrying about my customers and my employees. It really is weighing on me that they’re potentially in harm’s way.”
Fasula, whose family has run the stores based in northeastern Pennsylvania since the ’80s, faces a new set of challenges in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
In addition to taking care of his employees and overseeing the stores as many people empty grocery shelves in panic buying, Fasula found one of his outlets embroiled in a “twisted prank” after a woman allegedly coughed on various items at it. The store was forced to throw out more than $35,000 worth of groceries because it was not clear whether the woman had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
Fasula said that his employees “did everything they could to isolate the area and keep customers away from it.”
But he also said that at all of the stores, it’s a daily struggle to “constantly come up with ways that we can protect” his clientele as news about the disease evolves.
“We’ve put out signage. We’ve encouraged social distancing. We’ve come up with specific hours just for senior citizens. We’re doing everything we can. We’re getting floor decals made to help customers understand where they should wait,” Fasula said.
“We’re going to put up transparent curtains in front of our cashiers, he added. “We’re just doing everything we possibly can. It’s so hard. It’s so mentally taxing to just think of the next issue that could come up or the next way we need to try protect our people.”
Due to restrictions put in place to stop the spread of COVID-19, workers in many other occupations are working from home to isolate themselves from the virus. Fasula doesn’t have that luxury.
“I see all these posts and I talk to friends and they’re just bored out of their minds. In the grocery business, we’re going out of our minds for totally different reasons,” he said.
Fasula, who views himself as handling pressure pretty well, went on to say that he finds it difficult to not “serve our customers the way we always have.”
He told HuffPost how increased demand has led to customers with dietary restrictions not having access to the product that they want when they want it. Fasula recalled a recent instance when someone asked for regular almond milk, but only chocolate almond milk was left at the store.
“It’s just so frustrating to not be able to help customers and give them what they need,” he said.
Despite demand, Fasula says that his company has great suppliers who have been “very helpful” during this crisis. After the incident earlier this week that resulted in the loss of thousands of dollars of produce, he said his suppliers restocked his stores product at no charge.
He also said they haven’t been price gouging, shouting out C&S Wholesale Grocers and Four Seasons Produce by saying they’ve “really helped us out quite a bit.”
Fasula’s been candid on the company’s social media pages customers about price shifts, writing over the weekend that the shipments of eggs he was slated to receive on Monday would “be significantly higher than the current cost.”
“I’m not exactly sure what it will be, but I have already spoken with my grocery buyer, but regardless of the increase, we will cut our mark up to try to temper the increase,” he told customers.
In that same post, he implored people visiting the store to “buy produce now.”
“In addition to eggs, produce is going to get much more expensive. We have asparagus, cantaloupes and red peppers at great prices right now. However, prices are moving up. Asparagus is $1.29 while supplies last, but could go up several dollars per pound once we have to buy more. The red peppers we have are $1.49 now, but the market is going to almost $5.00 later this week!” he explained.
But in general, the post also asks potential shoppers to not “shop at a grocery store until you need to” in an effort to keep his employees safe.
“We need to limit the number of people who are in the store in order to keep the risk to everyone as low as possible. When you do come, please keep a far from others as possible ― especially the workers. We all need them to stay healthy,” he wrote.
As the pandemic continues to pick up steam, particularly in northeastern U.S. states, HuffPost asked Fasula what he wanted to tell other grocers on the frontlines with him.
“We’re all in this together. Whether they’re a direct competitor of mine or they’re somebody that’s in warehousing, trucking, farming, we all need to keep coming to work,” he said. “We all need to keep providing food to families.”
He went on to say that he wants grocery store employees “to make sure that they understand what they need to do to keep themselves safe” and advised them to seek out information on the FDA and CDC websites.
He added: “All food supply chain workers should know how much the country appreciates what they’re doing right now. They truly are heroes.”
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