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What It’s Like Grocery Shopping During The COVID-19 Pandemic In The Capital Region (Opinion)

On a recent trip to a Capital Region supermarket, it was calm, collected pandemonium—with very little social distancing.

Supermarkets have been deemed "essential" and will stay open during the COVID-19 outbreak.

My wife and I recently made the executive decision that it would be much safer to do all of my Saratoga Springs-based parents’ grocery shopping for them until the COVID-19 pandemic ended. Our reasoning? At press time, there are more than 350,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide, which have caused 15,000 deaths. Of those, more than 35,000 cases are in the US alone, and the virus has killed more than 450 people here. By a long shot, New York State has the most cases at 16,900 total, with some 1,100 new cases cropping up daily. One-hundred and fifty New Yorkers have already lost their lives.

We realized the severity of the situation when my parents didn’t even resist. The way we looked at it was this: Even if some local supermarkets, like Price Chopper/Market 32, were offering “senior hours,” leaving their home was still a major risk. We knew that my parents were more vulnerable to the virus, and we wanted to keep them safe because we loved them. So, we had my mom send us her shopping list, decided on a drop-off location, packed up our reusable bags and set out to the local grocery store for the first time since the governor told everybody to stay put. (Grocery store trips have been deemed “essential,” if it wasn’t already obvious.)

Because I’m not really interested in pointing fingers during this particularly trying time, I won’t be identifying which supermarket we went to, but let me tell you, I had a panic attack within two minutes of setting foot in there. I’m already starting to worry about the next time we have to go and stock up. First of all, there were at least 300-400 people there (that’s an estimate), and many were milling about, as if it were just another morning at the grocery store. When we went to get our grocery carts, the first thing we did was wipe down the plastic bars on them with disinfectant wipes and then put hand sanitizer on our hands. The woman who came in immediately behind us did nothing of the sort and looked at us as if we were from Mars. Not a single person in the entire market was practicing social distancing, and none of the market’s employees seemed too concerned about it. None of the market’s employees appeared to be using hand sanitizer after touching customers’ items or wiping down their conveyor belts after usage. (That’s, partly, due to the fact that there were no managers enforcing checkout lines or food aisles or how many people could be in them at the same time.) And none of the market’s staff, including our cashier, was wearing gloves or face masks.

If you think I’m playing the blame game here, you’re wrong. In fact, I can’t think of a more brave person in the greater workforce right now than grocery store workers. They’re daily dealing with panicking people on a daily basis, who are under a lot of stress and may lash out. As it were, per this NBC News story, “Grocery store workers, unlike health care providers, are not on the whole being given masks or other protective gear to wear on the job.” Hence my observations; it makes them sitting ducks.

As I walked briskly through the market, making sure to check off the many items that my mom had meticulously added to her shopping list, which was supposed to last her and my dad for two weeks, I passed within inches of strangers, time and again. One man had a face mask and gloves on and was desperately trying to get one of the nut dispensers to work. He was rattling it, frustratingly, within a few feet of me. He was one of just two people I noticed in the entire market wearing a face mask, so I figured I didn’t technically have to social distance from him. (That’s not entirely accurate, per the Guardian.)

The food aisles were pretty well stocked, but some of the staples such as fresh vegetables, pasta, red meat and cereal were picked over or completely gone. (Supermarket News reports that, despite some rumors, there are no nationwide food shortages.) The meat counter was closed—but surprisingly, the cold cut counter was open for business, with people in line that were definitely not six feet apart from one another. In the meat shelves area, I nabbed one of the last few organic chickens for my mom—and had to substitute ground turkey for beef, because there just wasn’t any of the latter left. Making my final round out of the frozen goods aisle, I thought I heard a man cough or sneeze loudly. My head was spinning. I called my wife, and we met up at checkout.

In the checkout line, there were yet more people standing around, just a few feet away from one another, and once it got to be our turn to check out, we found ourselves sandwiched between our cashier and the other one to our immediate right. (Psst! Here are some checkout aisle etiquette tips you can follow for the remainder of the outbreak.)  My wife smiled at me and triumphantly held up a roll of toilet paper. “Look what I found?” she said.

Earth to the Capital Region: This is not a drill—and it’s certainly not fake news. It’s real life. So, when the governor orders you to stay at home and practice social distancing, do it. If that means getting out of your comfort zone for the 20 minutes you’re at the supermarket, so be it. Think of it this way: By doing so, you might be saving lives. Because, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few weeks, it’s been clear that the COVID-19 pandemic is only going to get worse before it gets better. And we, as Upstate New Yorkers, need to do what we can to keep everyone around us safe. You with me, Saratoga?

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Will Levith

Will Levith is Editorial Director at Saratoga Living and Capital Region Living magazine. He's a native Saratogian and graduate of Saratoga Springs High School. His work has been published by Esquire, Playboy, Condé Nast Traveler, Men's Health, RealClearLife and many others. He lives in Troy with his wife, Laura, and dog, Esopus.

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