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When It Comes to Pandemic Safety, My Food Co-op Does What Big Grocery Stores Can’t

Shopping here means mandatory masks, gloves, and washing your hands upon entering — even if we have to teach you how to do it

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A row of bulk food dispensers in the aisle of a grocery store Shutterstock

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When I joined the 4th Street Food Co-op in 2005, I wasn’t just joining a progressive grocery store in Manhattan’s East Village; I was joining a community built on shared principles. Everything was organic and fair trade and nothing was made by multinational corporations. Many of us brought our own containers from home to fill with beans and grains from shared bulk bins. Now, 15 years later, I’m watching as the same community adapts to the pandemic, and to its effects on human behavior inside a store the size of a studio apartment.

While a lot of people are talking about the food safety struggles associated with shopping in supermarkets, shopping at smaller, member-owned food co-ops poses its own risks. Whether it’s shoppers sticking their hands into the bulk bins — which are the backbone of many a co-op — or people who don’t observe social distancing within small spaces, food co-ops have had to meet the challenges of not only adapting to a global pandemic, but also maintaining a sense of community, something crucial to the mission of most co-ops.

The tension between supermarket staff and shoppers is playing out in stores of all sizes across the country. Confusion, frustration, and anger have resulted in ugly, and even violent, confrontations at large stores around the issues of shoppers’ personal safety or lack thereof. I’m seeing it here too, both as a shopper and as a co-op member who has been newly tasked with monitoring human behavior. It’s a surreal and, at times, comical endeavor that I never expected to be part of my job.

Founded as a buying club in 1973, the 4th Street Food Co-op has two tiny aisles lined with bulk bins full of dried goods, loose teas, oils, and vinegars. When the number of COVID-19 cases began growing in New York, I feared our tightly packed store might become a breeding ground for the virus, and that people would be afraid to shop there. How on earth could we keep them safe when the majority of our products are dispensed from shared bins?

Over the subsequent weeks, I asked shoppers about their concerns, and the vast majority told me they believed that shopping at the co-op was at least as safe, if not safer, than shopping at larger grocery stores, where many workers have reported that they’ve been working under unsafe conditions. But at the co-op, where the people making the decisions actually work in the store themselves, safety is a high priority.

That’s why we collectively implemented a policy that all shoppers and workers must wear a face covering in the store, and, upon entering, also wash their hands in the bathroom at the back of the store. We then amended the policy so that customers would also be required to wear gloves (biodegradable, of course), which we provided.

In addition to creating a safer environment, these policies have provided an ongoing object lesson in human behavior. At least once a day, someone protests the handwashing policy, often holding up their hands, claiming the latex gloves (leather, in one case) they’ve been wearing all day are sufficient. Every co-op member I’ve talked to has encountered someone like this and has had to inform them that whatever they touched while wearing the gloves could potentially contaminate the store. Occasionally, I’ve had to argue with shoppers who insist that they had “just” washed their hands. I explain that even if they had washed their hands two minutes before entering the store, they still could have encountered something on the way from their apartment. I add that it’s not for individual co-op members to take the word of who has or hasn’t washed their hands; we’ve collectively decided on a policy that applies to everyone.

Most shoppers don’t question the policy, and those who do eventually make their way to the sink, however reluctantly — if they choose not to wash their hands, they can’t shop. And yet almost three months into the pandemic, while New York City remains in a state of pause due to high infection and death rates, I still find myself giving handwashing tutorials. I don’t want to embarrass anyone, but also won’t hesitate to call out someone who isn’t using soap or who is only “washing” for a few seconds. Twenty seconds, people! Twenty seconds with hot water and soap!

The idea of having to convince adults to properly wash their hands in a food store during a pandemic seems a bit absurd. Granted, no other stores are requiring handwashing and gloves to enter, so some shoppers may feel we’re going overboard, but then again, we’re not a regular store.

Because the store is so small, it’s fairly easy to monitor the handwashing and glove policies. It’s also easy to notice anyone who is not practicing proper social distancing. Large stores aren’t necessarily monitoring how far people stand apart from each other, but co-op members have taken it upon themselves to monitor and enforce safety measures. Our small size also means that only four people are allowed inside at the same time. So in order to speed up the shopping process and reduce the amount of time customers have to wait in line outside (six feet apart), I’ve had to interrupt a few casual conversations in the aisles, asking people to please shop as quickly as possible and resume the conversation outside. And because I’ve seen so many couples strolling the aisles together instead of dividing and conquering the shopping list, I’ve had to ask couples waiting in line outside to send in only one person to shop. Some people find the requests annoying and excessive (I’ve gotten a few eye rolls), but most have been understanding.

On the other end of the scale, some shoppers have taken their own safety precautions to the extreme. One woman insisted I let her ring up her own groceries so that nobody else touched her food, despite the fact that I was sitting behind a plexiglass barrier that another co-op member made to fit our register. Another man, concerned that I touched his produce while weighing it on the scale, returned it all to the cooler, got back in line, and asked to place his own produce on the scale. While I don’t believe these concerns are co-op-specific — most shoppers want to minimize their risk in grocery stores — our structure allows more flexibility and our members tend to be understanding. Suffice it to say, I can’t imagine that the same behavior would be tolerated at a regular supermarket.

As states begin to reopen and people crowd into restaurants, stores, and public places with no masks and no respect for social-distancing guidelines, I wonder how long 4th Street’s policies will remain in place, and how long people — both shoppers and members — will tolerate them. I don’t know how long the value of community will continue to take precedence over individual convenience, but I do know that whatever route the co-op takes, it will be a route that we chose together.

Cassandra Brooklyn is a writer, guidebook author, and the founder of EscapingNY, an international small group tour company.

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