TORRINGTON – “I don’t worry.”
That’s Debbie Ehler’s take on her role in the national effort against COVID-19, the novel coronavirus responsible for nearly 15,000 deaths worldwide – including over 400 in the United States. It’s essentially brought American life to a halt.
There won’t be any baseball on opening day, which was scheduled for Thursday. March Madness didn’t happen. The motors have fallen silent on the world’s speedways. Concert halls are quiet.
Schools are empty, but student desks are still full of supplies ready for the next day of learning – whenever that will be.
But in these days of uncertainty, there is one constant.
The conveyor belt on Ehler’s checkout aisle at Main Street Market in Torrington is still running, and at most times it’s at capacity. While the rest of the world has been ordered by its governments to stay home, that’s not an option for Ehler and her co-workers. They’re still tasked with stocking the shelves, with taking the money, with greeting the hundreds of customers per day – all in the face of the pandemic that has shut down the world.
“I don’t worry,” she said. “I believe in God. God’s going to take care of us.
“And my God shall supply every need of yours….” – Philippians 4:19
While most of the world is quarantined, those who aren’t are preparing to head home for the weekend – and everyone else in town, it seems, is at the grocery store. There’s tension in the air at Main Street Market. There’s a truck driver doing his best to back his rig to the dock on the south side of the store.
He’s hauling what the people in the packed parking lot are looking for – bread. He’s got enough to just about fill the empty shelves in the store.
Workers in white shirts, black pants and aprons begin to congregate on the ramp, waiting for the doors to open. They’re waiting to spring to action with pallet jacks and grit. They’re psyched up like a football team ready to take the field for their season opener, except unlike this football season, this action is guaranteed.
It’s been deemed ‘essential’ by the powers that be.
“The warehouse has a lot of ‘outs,’” Tom Kelly, the store’s manager, says as he waits for the truck to get lined up. “That’s why you see the empty shelves – we’re not getting the products. There’s a shortage and we’re trying to keep up.”
That’s due to the panic buying that has dominated the headlines since the COVID-19 situation. Inches of copy in newspapers and minutes of airtime – not to mention countless memes on Facebook – have been dedicated to covering nearly inexplicable runs on toilet paper. But there are other staple items that have been affected, as well.
It wouldn’t be an issue, Kelly said, if people would just stop panic buying.
“There are certain items we’re going to be out of,” he said. “Certain things, the essentials – milk, bread, eggs – we’re going to get those. It’s just a matter of when things slow down a little bit. If people would just keep buying the way they’re used to buying, instead of panic buying, they’ll catch up – the warehouse will. It’s that all over the nation.”
It has put an undue and, like many of the issues surrounding the pandemic, unforeseen strain on the store’s supply chain. According to Kelly, Friday’s truck only carried about two-thirds of what he ordered for the store.
“That’s why you see the empty shelves,” Kelly said. “People are coming in and buying six to eight gallons of milk and six to eight loaves of bread. When everybody does that as a nation, that totally doubles what we were doing before. For instance, last week we did two weeks of sales in one week. That causes a disruption in the supply chain.”
It’s something he hasn’t seen in his 40 years in the industry. Store employees tell tales of people from Cheyenne and Colorado – from as far away as Denver – coming all of the way to Torrington to buy thousands of dollars of groceries. The store’s more than doubled their weekly business since President Donald Trump and his coronavirus response team coined the term ‘social distancing,’ which has worked its way into the American lexicon in just a few short weeks.
Before COVID-19, the store unloaded three trucks a week. Now, it’s daily – and sometimes there are multiple trucks per day. Chuck Burns, the store’s produce manager, said it’s like nothing he’s ever seen in his four decades in the business, and it’s requiring extra effort from MSM employees.
“I’ve been doing this for over 40 years,” he said. “I never thought I would see it. You see it on the news and you think it’s never going to come here. It’s here.
“You’re awestruck by it. By the end of the day, you’re just worn out. It’s non-stop movement just trying to get it filled back up. You can’t fill it before it’s taken off.
“I think they’re doing a great job. Most people couldn’t handle the situation. People that shop in this environment are going crazy. People have to work 10 hours a day. They’re a super bunch of guys.”
“Moreover, it is required of stewards they be found trustworthy” – 1 Corinthians 4:2
“It’s never been like this,” Kim Pittman, assistant manager, said as she stocks loaves of bread on the shelf at Main Street Market.
Almost as soon as she can put it on the shelf, it’s gone. Customers have seen the pallets moving from the wings of the store toward the shelves and are now squeezing between the loads to grab a loaf.
Even while Pittman stocks the bread, she knows it won’t last long. If it’s still there this evening, it will be gone tomorrow morning. It’s been that way for eight or nine days that, in all likelihood, felt much longer.
“It started Wednesday and then Thursday it hit,” she said. “It has been hell’s bells.”
Tim Naylor compared the scene to the rush the store normally sees on the last shopping days before Christmas or Thanksgiving.
“At Christmastime, but it doesn’t last this long,” he said. “This has gone on and on. We get stuff in and it’s gone. Folks are coming from Nebraska, and Colorado, and everywhere and they’re buying groceries.”
It’s not a sustainable practice, according to Burns.
“It depends on when the scare or the fear goes away, or they find that magic pill to stop it,” he said. “We get three trucks a week. Right now, we’ll usually get a full truck, or a truck and a half a day. Today, we got one truck and one got stuck in Colorado, so we’re behind. It’s like having Christmas every day of the week. It’s like a holiday every day. Ever since last Wednesday, when it really hit.”
And when it hit, the MSM employees had to function as a team.
“We’re trying the best we can,” Kelly said. “Our whole staff is teaming up and helping each other out. I want to emphasize that. We need all hands on deck to keep up.”
Front end manager Vicky Harris said the store has had to call in its younger employees, who aren’t in school due to the pandemic. But the young employees, as well as the veterans, have done their part.
“They’ve done pretty good,” she said. “We’ve called a lot of our younger staff and carryouts in because there’s no school. That has helped a lot. We’re just like a big team. When we’re having trouble or busy, they know they need to be here.”
“Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord…” 1 Corinthians 15:58
The frontlines of major world events aren’t supposed to look like this.
There aren’t any trenches dug in the battle against COVID-19. There’s no artillery, no gas masks, no tanks and no landing craft. The weapons are different, too.
Against this foe, our best weapons are soap, disinfectant spray, hand sanitizer and Netflix.
But some of us must eschew social distancing to, as Naylor said, keep it going.
“We’re out here,” Burns said. “We’re taking precautions, keeping our hands clean, keeping our distance if someone looks sick or is coughing – but we don’t know. It’s scary. It’s a crazy situation.”
The novel coronavirus is especially scary because for 80 percent of those affected, it looks like a cold, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Some people show no symptoms. But for the remainder, it can be fatal. According to CBS, 627 died in Italy on Sunday, marking the deadliest day of the pandemic so far.
Eight out of ten people are Typhoid Marys – transmitting the disease to the masses with little or no knowledge they’re carrying it. Even if they do show symptoms, the CDC says it can be transmitted to others up to two weeks prior.
Kelly said he and his employees are taking all of the precautions they can to keep MSM free of COVID-19.
“We’re trying to clean doorknobs, anything we can clean, we try to do that four or five times a day,” he said. “We get a lot of people in here. We closed down our coffee shop. We’re telling people to sanitize, wash hands.”
The MSM employees have seen something new in recent weeks, however – displays of gratitude for their efforts. One patron, who remained anonymous, had pizza delivered for the whole crew.
“Probably the best thing that has come from this is how many people are saying ‘thank you’ and that they really appreciate what we’re doing,” Burns said.
Harris said the team’s efforts to meet the higher demand since the outbreak have been met with appreciation from the public.
“I think everyone really appreciates the fact that we can stay open and we can keep going for them and try to keep our lines down so they can get in and out fast,” she said. “We’re trying to meet their needs as much as we can.”
And that’s what it takes to just keep things going, Naylor said.
“The biggest thing is being patient and just keeping things going,” he said. “That’s the important thing – just keeping people going along.”