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The Diary Of A Grocery Store Worker During The Epidemic

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Grocery store workers across the country are on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, and some are struggling with what that means for their health and the health of others. Today we're sharing an audio diary of a grocery worker in Portland, Maine. She asked that we don't name her store to protect her privacy. Here's Elizabeth Caldwell.

ELIZABETH CALDWELL: In January, I took a job as a cashier in a grocery store.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hi.

CALDWELL: The job was supposed to be an easy way to earn extra money. And it was for a while.

Today is Tuesday. I'm about to go to work. There are over 100 cases of coronavirus in Maine now, where I live.

Since the outbreak, things have changed in the store. First, the dining area closed. Then hot food went away altogether. Customers started to stock up on groceries. But in the early days, they were apologetic, almost embarrassed. Then the heavy-duty buying began. Frozen vegetables went first, then canned goods and, of course, toilet paper. Now when I go to work, I never know what's going to happen.

OK, I'm about to drive by the store to park. And I'm interested to see if there's a line because today is the first day that they're limiting the amount of people who can be in the store.

But there's no line. I'm relieved. I'm relieved we finally have hand sanitizer at the registers, too.

There are signs now reminding people to keep away from each other. A man in his 20s runs into the sign in front of my register and knocks it sideways. I don't know why this makes me angry. I don't even like the sign. But I tell the man to fix it. It was like that when I got here, he says. I wish I could complain about him, but I can't because the cashiers are spaced out, too. This is probably for my own good. As I told a friend the other day, I haven't been great about remembering to keep back.

I haven't been able to do social distancing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Laughter).

CALDWELL: Like, somebody will come up, and they try to pay with their card. And then you know how it doesn't work.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah, yeah.

CALDWELL: And then they don't know what to press.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Right.

CALDWELL: And so I just lean over. My face is super-close to their face, super-close to this germ-ridden credit card thing. I just can't seem to stop.

The best part about the job is seeing my co-workers - the ones who are still here, anyway. The job is temporary, but I'll remember them in this situation for the rest of my life.

Without any real conversation, the day drags until about 4 o'clock, when the city announces a shelter-in-place order.

So now there is a line outside.

When customers thank me for working, I appreciate the sentiment, but I don't know how to respond. I'm not working out of the goodness of my heart. I'm working because I need money, and I'm not even earning that much of it. So when they thank me, it's embarrassing.

So I'm back at home now, and the thing that's been going through my head is that I still have the same old, boring job ringing up groceries, but the circumstances are extraordinary. And I bet a lot of people feel like that right now. Life is so, so boring right now, but it also feels like total, scary chaos at the same time.

CHANG: Elizabeth Caldwell works at a grocery store in Portland, Maine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.