Shopping scares me, even though stores are doing their best to make it safe

Buy-Low Foods is doing its best to make shopping safe, but narrow aisles make physical distancing a challenge. (© Richard McGuire Photo)

As my fridge and kitchen cupboards got emptier and emptier in recent days, I realized I would have to make another dreaded trip to the grocery store.

I’ve been trying to limit my grocery shopping to once every two weeks to avoid unnecessary exposure to other people. But I only managed to hold out for 11 days. My eggs, bread and other items were all gone. The remaining small amount of milk in my jug was starting to smell.

I’ve also been holding out on a few other items I’ve needed or wanted. Prescriptions down to the last pills. A needed hardware item. And, since I don’t intend to give up all alcohol until a vaccine is available, a trip to the liquor store.

Shopping scares me. I try to go in as quickly as I can, armed with a plan, knowing exactly what I need to get. I wear a face covering, which offers limited protection to myself and others. I’m careful about what I touch and the bandana reminds me not to touch my face.

I’m scared because shopping brings people together in a confined space with reduced air circulation. I’m scared because my age and health put me at the threshold of higher risk. Most importantly, I’m terrified I’ll infect my partner, who is older than me and may be more vulnerable.

Of the four stores I visited – Buy-Low Foods, Osoyoos Home Hardware, Shoppers Drug Mart and the BC Liquor Store – all were taking appropriate steps to keep their businesses safe. They had floor markings to keep people aware of physical distancing. They had signage to reinforce safety measures. A new development since I last shopped is that stores have put up plexiglass shields to reduce the possibility of transmission between staff and customers.

But of those four stores, only at Osoyoos Home Hardware was I able to consistently keep other people at least two metres away. Aisles are simply too narrow at the other stores and despite all the warnings, some people come too close without thinking.

I had the hardest time maintaining a two-metre buffer at Buy-Low Foods. To be clear, I am not criticizing the store, which has done an admirable job allowing people to shop for necessities in as safe an environment as possible.

In hindsight, I should have turned around and gone home when I saw the number of cars in the Buy-Low lot, but once inside, it didn’t make sense to go away and come back.

Again, the staff at Buy-Low were great. They encourage people to pick up a grocery cart inside that’s had its handle sprayed with sanitizer, and the man at the carts even sprayed some sanitizer on my hands.

They are deterring hoarding by limiting certain items to one per customer. When I visited on Tuesday, there was even a reasonable supply of toilet paper. And, surprise, surprise — there were actually a few bottles of Purell hand sanitzer on one shelf — the first I’ve seen on sale anywhere since this disease was declared a pandemic. Don’t count on any being left.

The problem is that you can’t really pass anyone in the narrow aisles and maintain a two-metre distance. There are staff stocking shelves. There are shoppers in the aisles. I try to wait at the end of an aisle rather than pass someone already in that aisle, but several times I was in an aisle when people approached me at the same time from both ends.

Several times I held my breath as people passed me, wondering if it did any good. You are more at risk with a longer exposure time, but I’d rather be safe than sorry. I only saw one other customer wearing face covering.

The bandana over my face has an added benefit besides its limited filtration ability – it reminds people to keep away. I don’t recommend faking Covid symptoms to deter people from entering your personal space, but admittedly it crossed my mind with a few people who carelessly got too close.

The grocery stores and volunteers are doing shopping and delivering to people that really need it. But Buy-Low Manager Brian Fry has made clear through social media that there just aren’t the resources to extend that to everybody.

Osoyoos Home Hardware has done a great job of providing a safe environment. Much of the store is closed off, but attentive staff will find the item for you if it’s in the closed area. The open part is wide enough that you aren’t forced too close to other people. They’ve got a single checkout open and there’s a table to keep customers from getting too close to the cashiers. You place your items on the table with the bar code facing up to be scanned.

Shoppers Drug Mart has the plexi screens that the other stores have. The aisles are shorter than at Buy-Low and I was able to do my shopping without getting too close to anyone. The problem was leaving the store where I found I couldn’t exit without passing too close to people waiting at the front checkout. Again, I held my breath and hoped the bandana would give me some protection.

The liquor store was a busy place. Unfortunately, in these stressful times, alcohol consumption has risen significantly across Canada. I try to monitor my own consumption. It’s got to be a problem for many alcoholics, some of whom would go through severe withdrawal if they were suddenly cut off.

The store handled it well. They were controlling the number of people allowed into the store at one time. I had to wait outside for a while until enough people had left. The cashier carefully sanitized her area, including the credit and debit card reader after the previous customer and before she served me.

Of course when I got home, I carefully removed the bandana and thoroughly washed my hands before bringing my purchases inside. Then I washed them again. And again.

I hope I can do better than 11 days between shopping trips next time. And I hope more people next time are wearing masks.

I’m now back to isolation and physical distancing, which for me is a lot less stressful than going shopping.


Author: Richard McGuire

Richard McGuire is an Osoyoos photographer who worked at the Osoyoos Times between 2012 and 2018, first as reporter and then as editor. He has a long career in journalism as well as research, communication and management at the House of Commons in Ottawa and in the federal government.

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