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Grocery workers adapt to life behind a mask

Everybody’s employee Henry Armbruster, right, rings up Michaela McLain’s groceries Thursday, July 2. Everybody’s is among the few grocery stores that require both employees and customers to wear masks. (Andy Hallman/The Union)
Everybody’s employee Henry Armbruster, right, rings up Michaela McLain’s groceries Thursday, July 2. Everybody’s is among the few grocery stores that require both employees and customers to wear masks. (Andy Hallman/The Union)
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Grocery store workers are on the front lines of the pandemic.

They interact with dozens if not hundreds of customers on every shift. Because of this exposure to large swaths of the public, most grocery stores in the area have required their employees to wear masks, and some encourage their customers to follow suit.

Everybody’s Whole Foods in Fairfield is one of the few grocery stores to require not just its employees but also its customers to wear a mask inside.

The store began the policy in early April, before chains such as Hy-Vee and Walmart were making their employees wear masks. Nathan Gamet, the store owner, said the policy has been well received overall, with a few complaints. Gamet said he implemented the policy on the advice of public health professionals.

Gamet said some customers have expressed appreciation to him for making everyone in the store wear a mask.

“I feel safer coming to work every day knowing that everyone is going to wear a mask,” he said.

At the beginning of the pandemic, a few employees informed Gamet they didn’t feel comfortable coming to work. Gamet said most were teenagers whose parents wanted them to stay home for a while. Some of them have come back to work, but at least one has not.

Gamet said he knows the masks are uncomfortable to wear for long periods, especially now that the weather is warm. But he said his employees understand their value and haven’t raised too much of a fuss.

“The employees have been mostly understanding,” he said. “Everyone complains about them, even me, but our employees understand that we see so many people every day that it makes sense.”

Everybody’s employee Henry Armbruster has worked for the company for nearly a year. He said he was concerned about coming to work when the pandemic began, but now it feels like “business as usual.”

Armbruster said he gets nervous sometimes if he’s around someone who coughs or sneezes, especially if he’s close to them as he’s checking out their groceries. Everybody’s has installed transparent screens at their registers to help stop the spread of germs between the customers and staff in the checkout line.

Armbruster said wearing a mask all day is not much fun, that it gets sweaty and sometimes he has to go outside to take it off and breathe normally. At the same time, he sees value in everyone wearing masks.

“There are a lot of people trying to politicize it, who don’t want to wear them, but the reason we’re doing this is for other people, and to stop our employees from getting sick,” Armbruster said.

Armbruster said most customers appreciate the mask policy, but a few have told him they feel it’s an infringement on their rights.

Gamet said the coronavirus is still affecting supply lines. He estimated that 50 percent to 75 percent of the store’s orders are actually filled, because there aren’t enough groceries to go around.

“I think produce has been better than packaged goods in that regard,” he said. “At this point, the virus has been going on so long that manufacturing plants are being affected by it.”

Luckily for grocers like Gamet, the virus has not cut into his sales.

“Everyone still has to eat,” he said.

The virus has, however, changed how Everybody’s employees spend their time. Gamet said the biggest shift in his business has been devoting more personnel to filling delivery orders.

“We were doing that before the virus, but we’ve had to scale it up dramatically since,” he said.