Long lines, yelling customers, anxiety: LA grocery clerks cope with coronavirus outbreak

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The entrance to Culver City’s Ralphs supermarket, with customers waiting in line to get inside, March 18, 2020. Photo by Amy Ta.

Remember what going to the grocery store used to be like, back in the old days of … just a couple weeks ago? COVID-19 has given us a new reality.

“As soon as we open, everybody busts through the door,” says Danny Morales, a grocery clerk at Ralphs in West LA. “You know, no regard for nobody. Everybody for themselves.”

Morales has been with the grocery chain for four months, working mostly through the holiday season. He’s never seen the store this busy. 

“In the night, there's some campers out here. And by 7:00, 8:00, there's large lines already. God forbid if you try to cut in, they'll stomp on you or something,” he says.

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A loaded grocery cart outside of Culver City’s Ralphs supermarket, where customers wait in line to get inside, March 18, 2020. Photo by Amy Ta. 

A shift leader for Ralphs’ Instacart delivery service watched the frenzy slowly build. She withheld her last name for privacy reasons. 

She says, “You could see it on a week by week basis. The first initial people are making jokes or laughing, ‘Oh, this isn't a big deal.’ And then you start seeing people with face masks. Then you see people starting to go, ‘Don't touch me, stay six feet away from me.’ So it's just progressing more and more, where people are taking it more seriously or reacting more seriously towards it.”

She says customers' attitudes started to mentally affect her: “You hear customers yelling at each other like, ‘Keep a distance from me!’ And it starts to have an impact on you mentally, whether you want it to or not. Anxiety is getting a little bit heavier, but we've been cleaning a lot more to kind of keep that down.”

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Near the front of the line to get inside Ralphs supermarket in Culver City, March 18, 2020. Photo by Amy Ta. 

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Customers wait in line to get inside Ralphs supermarket in Culver City, March 18, 2020. Photo by Amy Ta. 

But the situation is slowly improving, she says.

“It's starting to get a lot more civilized in the stores. You have a limit to how many things you can buy. There's a limit to how many people could be in the store at certain hours. … There's time for us to get things back on the shelves. … Stores and companies are working together to make sure there isn't mass panic going on.”

What surprisingly doesn’t make her anxious is the possible exposure to COVID-19. Grocery store employees are interacting with people more than nearly anyone else except health care workers these days. 

“I'm sure each clerk has sanitizer that is readily available for them. We have hot water upstairs that we can use to wash our hands. We've all been pretty good about that in the past because you have to go through training on that. It's just nice to see it being reinforced not just for us, but on a global scale, at this point,” she says.


Ralphs, Culver City, Mar 18, 2020-Amy Ta-8.jpgBags of groceries and toilet paper outside Ralphs supermarket in Culver City, March 18, 2020. Photo by Amy Ta. 

At Erewhon Market in Venice, cashier Susan Salkeld has come to accept the situation. 

“The kind of job I have, I feel like I would be one of the first ones to get it. … When it's my day, it's my day, I guess. I'm not worried about it,” she says.

Salkeld started at the store in August. She’s adjusting to the new normal.

It was the line that never went down. Just the bagging, and the cans, and the produce -- it was overwhelming. You would see these giant scary carts,” she describes.

Despite this, she’s enjoyed helping people during this pandemic way of life. In fact, it’s given her something to look forward to. 

“I was getting to that point where I was feeling really tired. And then it just gives me a purpose, I guess, to go to work. It's not just that hourly job trying to get through the day anymore. So now, I'm more excited about it. And that's what's been getting me through it.”

One small chain of grocery stores, Vallarta Supermarkets, is trying to adapt to the new normal. They are hiring more employees to help restock shelves and are assuring customers that food and household items won't run out, more shipments are coming. 

To help the most vulnerable population, they have started a new initiative. Vallarta Supermarkets will open early exclusively for seniors, 65+ years of age or older, pregnant women and those with disabilities from 7:00am-8:00am before opening to the rest of the public. Across all of its 50 locations in California.

To find out more, visit their website: https://vallartasupermarkets.com/

Credits

Guest:
Ivette Serrano - Director of Marketing at Vallarta Supermarkets

Host:
Steve Chiotakis

Producers:
Christian Bordal, Jenna Kagel

Reporter:
Angel Carreras