Local grocers risk health to keep Sonoma County fed

Grocery store workers find themselves on the front lines of a pandemic.|

Dean McNeany has a well-rehearsed drill when he comes home from work each day.

“My wife is so on top of me,” McNeany said. “I strip in the garage. I wipe everything down, food-wise, in the garage. I have a fridge out there, so I’ll put the food in it. I’m not re-wearing stuff. I’ve got a bag of laundry out there. I mean, it’s down to my shoes.”

McNeany, 61, isn’t a firefighter or nurse or ambulance driver, not someone you would consider a “first responder.” He works at Pacific Market in Santa Rosa’s Town and Country Shopping Center.

But grocery store employees are very much on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic. Day in, day out, they subject themselves to the sort of physical proximity and repetitive package handling that would make most people blanch these days, all to deliver the raw materials of our survival - milk and eggs, wine and avocados, disinfectant wipes and toilet paper.

“I couldn’t feel any prouder of my employees as of right now,” said Victor Soares, who owns the Grocery Outlet in Rohnert Park. “For lack of a better analogy, they’re like the Navy SEALs of the grocery business. They’ve done their jobs, and they’ve gone above and beyond.”

Grocers as heroes? Maybe they were all along.

Certainly, in the days just before and after Sonoma County’s original stay-at-home order, when frenzied shoppers packed the stores and items flew off the shelves, a lot of people realized just how important their local market is, and not just in a pragmatic sense. Grocery stores are still the connective tissue of modern life.

This pandemic has forced store workers into an uncomfortable calculation. They value their customers, and they need their paychecks. They also worry about acquiring the coronavirus at work and bringing it into their homes.

The concern is justified. Los Angeles magazine wrote on March 30 that at least four grocery store workers across the LA metropolis had tested positive. That same day, the San Jose Mercury News reported two cases among supermarket clerks in San Jose.

Denise Silva understands the situation. She has a 90-year-old mother, and one of her adult sons is asthmatic and living with a pregnant partner.

“I don’t get to see my family,” said Silva, who has worked at Molsberry’s Market in Larkfield-Wikiup for 18½ years. “I’m in the public too much. I can’t take that chance.”

Supermarkets have enacted a range of tactics to protect their staff, like providing gloves and masks and hanging Plexiglas shields in front of cash registers. But there is no way to fully defend grocery clerks from a virus. They spend too much time among their fellow humans.

“We’re a small store,” McNeany said. “Five aisles wide. Ceilings low. You don’t know how much the fresh air means to me.”

It’s scarier for the percentage of grocery workers who are over 60 or have respiratory conditions. Lynn (not her real name; her employer, Whole Foods, which was hit with a one-day worker walkout Tuesday, did not allow employees to speak to the media) falls into that latter category. Her allergies cause asthma-like symptoms. But she hasn’t missed a day of work. Lynn knows there is risk, but she feels that opposite tug, the one pulling her toward the customers who rely on her store for everything from dinner to cleaning products to pretty flowers.

“This Whole Foods has been open through fires, through rolling blackouts, and everyone has been together with the goal to get food to people,” she said. “Since the fires (of 2017), we’ve kind of looked at our role here as doing more than just (her primary station). Bagging, listening, everything. People do want to be listened to and heard, and understood. They want to know that you empathize with them.”

And the smaller the neighborhood, the stronger the bond.

“I’ve got some employees who have told certain customers, ‘I tell you what, don’t come in the store. I’ll bring it out to your car,’?” said Dean Molsberry, third-generation owner of Molsberry’s Market. “My employees are giving out their phone numbers to customers. We’re doing online orders, but an older customer might say, ‘I don’t have a computer.’ And the reply will be, ‘I’ll run it to your house for you.’ They’ve really stepped up.”

Molsberry mentioned one of his workers, Nita (he elected not to add her last name without permission), who bought a jug of distilled water during a recent shift. Then a woman came in looking for distilled water. She needed it for the CPAP humidifier that helps her breathe at night, and had been to six different stores trying to find some. Nita went straight to her car, retrieved the water and gave it to the woman.

For some of these juice box heroes, the biggest regret is that they can’t do more to help.

“Like we just started the last couple days letting everyone know we cannot bag for them if they use their reusable bags,” Silva said. “And that’s so difficult. We’re a full-service store, we’re used to bagging.”

In most ways, however, the grocery brigade is doing more these days, not less. Checkers and stockers who were accustomed to giving their work stations a periodic wipe-down now are spending hours a day sanitizing shopping carts, basket handles, cash registers, card readers and ATM machines. It’s not in the employee handbook. But they take it in stride, doing whatever they can in a time of gaping public need.

“I’m very happy I have a job, and that I can be of service,” Lynn said. “Really, ultimately in life, I want to be of service. So many people in Sonoma County are not able to be of service right now. I feel that would make them so much happier.”

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.

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