My experience as an essential worker during the pandemic

Mathilda Hallstrom, Staff Writer

Months ago, when I pictured myself writing for the senior issue of The Evanstonian, I did not expect to be addressing a global pandemic and its cruel social symptoms. Life comes at you fast. 

It is also true that when I scored a part-time job as a cashier at a certain health-focused grocery store on the northside of town, I did not expect to spend my final days in high school cashing out thousands of dollars worth of nonperishables to frantic customers from behind a plexiglass shield. 

Myself – and many other non-medical essential workers – are feeling quite blindsided by what this lockdown has meant for our occupational experiences. While I have the luxury of choosing to work in order to augment my savings account, many of my coworkers are working to support their families and themselves. Despite their health and safety concerns, they show up to serve frantic crowds for hours at a time – for a temporary pay increase of $2. Several of the store’s workers have expressed their feelings of distress and anxiety to me, citing examples of customers sporting inadequate PPE or stepping behind the counter. 

While many customers are taking the necessary precautions to protect themselves and those around them, Evanston has miles to leap in terms of successfully executing social distancing principles. Here are some tips that will help you navigate the grocery store safely and maintain a safer environment for essential workers. 

First and foremost, wear a mask. Per an order issued by the Health and Human Services department of the City of Evanston, citizens are mandated to cover their nose and mouth when shopping. In order for a covering to work effectively, it’s necessary to keep both the nose and mouth fully covered at all times – which means no holes to allow for easier breathing. Wearing a mask can be uncomfortable, but a thirty-minute period of slightly damper respiration is worth it to keep you and your peers safe. 

While face coverings can help, they’re not a magic fix to the virus. Every day, I watch patrons fail to keep the minimum CDC-recommended distance of six feet from each other and employees. It is possible to grocery shop without squeezing by another customer or a stocking worker to grab an item from the shelf. Many grocery stores have markers on the floor to delineate a six-foot distance. It may be awkward waiting in a stretched-out line, but adhering to the designated positions will help create a safer environment for everybody involved. 

Families are also encouraged to limit shopping groups to two people or less. It can seem tempting for the whole family to tag along when there’s not much else to do, but less bodies means lower risk of infection. 

Speaking of boredom: don’t come to shop just because you are bored. I promise there are more interesting and stimulating ways to pass time that won’t put folks at risk. Additionally, try to keep purchases  comprehensive in order to avoid multiple day trips. This includes the 21+ customers who visit several times a week to buy alcohol. Buy what you know you will need for several weeks, consume it, and come back to buy more.

If possible, do not use cash. Cash transactions are generally unsanitary, and now is not the time to get rid of the $5 that’s been sitting in your wallet for weeks. Some grocery stores have restricted the exchange of cash in order to minimize exposure. Contactless transactions are even better, so teach your parents and others around you how to use ApplePay. 

Most importantly, please respect the workers at your store. After several months of working at a grocery store (during a pandemic, nonetheless), I truly believe that my peers are some of the hardest working people to ever grace my life. It’s likely that your cashier has performed extensive hours of incessant labor with little time to rest. During this tragic and unprecedented period of our lives, we all have to make sacrifices – which means that you may not get what you want. Some stores, like my own, have implemented quotas on popular items (milk, beans, frozen vegetables) to ensure that every customer has an equal opportunity to purchase the goods they need to feed their families. Unfortunately, some customers have responded to this inconvenience in a more aggressive manner than necessary, leaving myself and my peers disturbed. Right now, nobody is more important than anybody else. 

We all have our part to play in keeping our community healthy, and that means making difficult decisions and sacrificing the luxuries of the past. It’s time that we all took responsibility in making wise individual choices to slow the spread of COVID-19.