Local grocers respond to COVID-19 pandemic

Customers+shop+at+the+County+Market+in+Champaign%2C+IL+on+Feb.+16.

Kenyon Edmond

Customers shop at the County Market in Champaign, IL on Feb. 16.

By Karena Tse, Staff Writer

On March 15, Governor Pritzker ordered all restaurant and bar owners to immediately close for two weeks. Panicked customers across Illinois headed straight to the one place they could think of: the grocery store. County Market Store Director, Shawn Beckett, remembers this moment clearly.

“I think that was on Sunday,” Beckett said. “That’s when everyone started rushing into the store. The demand, you know, of key items they wanted, whether it be toilet paper or sanitizer, ground beef, milk — We just couldn’t keep it in stock.”

Anxiety had already been mounting in the week leading up to Governor Pritzker’s announcement. Customers had begun shopping in the store aggressively, putting pressure on the team at County Market. The escalation of the coronavirus coincided unluckily with short staffing at County Market as student employees took time off in anticipation of spring break. 

As the remaining employees worked longer, tougher hours, they also grappled with the uncertainty that had taken hold of the workplace. Rumours circulated the store about what the pandemic would mean for them, questioning if they would close or if many of them would have a job tomorrow.

Meanwhile, customers came to employees with just as many questions—most of which no one had the answers to. 

“Customers were coming in and asking us, ‘Hey, are you going to stop selling alcohol?’ or ‘Hey, I heard that stores are going to start closing, and we’re going to have a curfew,’ Becket recalled. “And it’s like, we don’t have that information. We don’t know. But we were one of the only places that people could go to.”

Beckett found it discouraging to not have the answers or products to take care of every customer that came through the store. Jada Moseley, an associate at Harvest Market, also felt for shoppers who couldn’t find what they needed.

“At the beginning, it was sad to see that customers weren’t getting certain products because of the high demand the pandemic had created,” Moseley said. 

After a few weeks under these changing shopping conditions, supply and demand started to level out. This careful balance is, in large part, a product of new policies. Both County Market and Harvest Market placed limits on high-demand products like toilet paper and dedicated the 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. shopping hours to older adults and other high-risk shoppers.

New policies had also been implemented to ensure as safe of a shopping environment as possible. Employees get their temperature checked before starting their shifts and work in masks and gloves. Both stores have installed arrows on the floor to encourage directional shopping and social-distancing. At checkout, employees wipe down the register, sneeze guard and conveyor belt after each customer that comes through.

Beckett felt encouraged by how customers were adapting to the new shopping conditions. After the initial panic, customers began buying in a more community-minded way. Not only did they make an effort to buy just what they needed, they are also giving back to the community through County Market’s new Hope Bag program. For $4.99, customers and associates could purchase these prepackaged bags of nonperishable foods to be donated to the Eastern Illinois Foodbank. According to Beckett, County Market’s parent company Niemann Foods had raised over $10,000 in Hope Bags in the East district since April 1st. 

“I’ve been really encouraged by the customers and even associates that even during this time, where people are being laid off, we’re thinking about others,” Beckett said. “That’s the inspiring thing: the community.”

Like their customers, County Market and Harvest Market employees have taken the challenges brought on by the coronavirus in stride. They found themselves filling a crucial role in a worldwide pandemic — a risk Moseley certainly did not foresee when she started working at Harvest Market months ago.

For Moseley, the weight of working during the coronavirus panic was a strange one to bear. Instead of letting the unease paralyze her, she stayed focused on her goal: to take care of the customers. 

“It’s kind of hard to wrap your head around it,” Moseley said. “So I try not to think about it when I go to work. It’s a little bit exhausting, but it’s for the people and for the community to be able to get the groceries they need.”

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