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Will Wedge arrived at work on March 12 anticipating a typically busy Thursday at his grocery store in downtown Dover-Foxcroft.
What he got instead was his first glimpse of a brand new world for grocers large and small as the coronavirus pandemic arrived on America’s doorstep.
Bath tissue, paper towels, hand sanitizers and such food staples as flour and beans quickly became scarce commodities as shoppers began stockpiling goods and emptying store shelves in preparation for hunkering down at home to avoid the spreading outbreak.
“It was instantaneous, like someone flipped a switch,” said Wedge, who with his wife, Melissa, has owned Will’s Shop ‘n Save for the past nine years.
Three weeks later, the heavy shopping continues amid Maine’s stay-at-home order, and those who work in the industry suddenly have been cast in a new light.
“I’ve never thought of the grocery business as first responders until now,” said Wedge, a veteran of more than 40 years in the industry. “We clearly know our mission is to feed the community, and without us and Shaw’s up the street people would have to travel to Bangor or Dexter or Newport. They’d have to travel a great distance and then [those stores] would be overwhelmed.
“We have a very important role in the community, we know that. We’re not making widgets, we’re feeding people. We’re keeping people alive.”
Wedge sees similarities between the ongoing shopping blitz and folks stocking up for a snowstorm, except that the current stockpiling has continued for three weeks instead of the 24 to 48 hours before a big snowfall.
“It totally surprised us because there’s no rulebook for something like this,” he said. “Nobody said if there’s a pandemic you do A, B and C — that those are the steps you take.
“There were no A, B and C steps. We know what to do to prepare for a snowstorm, but this is not a snowstorm, it’s not a one- or two-day event. It’s been 22 days now, and it feels like it’s been 44 days.”
Local stores like Will’s Shop ‘n Save — named 2019 Grocer of the Year by the Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association — have always been part grocery store and part social setting where friends notice each other in an aisle and spend the next half-hour in conversation before heading to the cash register.
For the time being, at least, that latter rite of small-town life has given way to the community’s collective health concerns.
Among the latest changes for retailers are state-imposed limits on the number of customers allowed to shop at one time in what are considered essential businesses like a grocery store.
That number is based on the size of the store, and in Will’s case that limit as of Thursday is 15 shoppers at a time.
“The public has been amazing and understanding of that new rule,” Wedge said. “We have 15 carriages available for them, and we sanitize the carriages the second they’re done using them so the next customer coming through has a fresh carriage to use.
“We’re constantly counting cars in the parking lot and customers in the store to ensure that we’re not exceeding the 15.”
Wedge urges his customers to shop individually rather than in small groups to allow for as many different shoppers as possible.
“I just spoke to a nice couple who were in here shopping and explained that by them shopping together it means another person has to wait for their chance to shop because those two wanted to shop together and double their risk of exposure,” he said.
“But the new mandate is working very well for my associates and the customers.”
Customer limits mark just the latest step businesses have adopted in response to the coronavirus threat — steps Melissa Wedge keeps Will’s shoppers updated on through the store’s Facebook page.
Special shopping hours have been designated for senior citizens, and retailers actively enforce the mandated six feet of separation between customers.
“We have circles six feet apart throughout the store so people know not to clump together,” Wedge said. “I’ve got a cashier on register one and another on register three so they’re probably 12 feet apart from each other, and I have no more than one person putting up freight in any given aisle.
“My associates are keeping their distance from each other, the customers are keeping their distance from each other, and it’s working very well. I’m really pleased at how well the community has embraced social distancing,” Will Wedge said.
Another area of emphasis at Will’s is the constant sanitizing of high-traffic areas and the related addition of large plexiglass “sneeze guards” near the cash registers and delicatessen counter.
“Any touch points that either the customers or the associates touch we’re cleaning 100 times more than we ever have,” Wedge said.
Wedge also has seen improvements with the food supply, with more manufacturers and producers focused on providing more of their most popular brands.
“The supply chain across the nation was not ready for 330 million Americans to buy a month’s worth of product at once,” he said. “It took everyone by surprise from the manufacturer to the grower to the retailer.
“We’re working very, very diligently to fill our shelves back up, and the supply chain is improving every single day.”
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