SOUTHEASTERN, N.C. — While thousands of people hurry in and out of stores — many stocking up on supplies and keeping their distance as cases of coronavirus rise — employees of essential businesses keep showing up to work.
On the front lines of the crisis, these workers handle cash and cards, restock empty shelves, and routinely clean surfaces where the virus is known to stay intact for hours, and in some cases up to three days.
Their sometimes thankless jobs are now more critical than ever. Exposed to hundreds of people daily, cashiers and employees of grocery stores, supermarkets, gas stations, pharmacies, discount stores, and more keep society functioning in high-risk, people-facing roles.
Without them, the battered economy would have even less hope moving through the global and deadly pandemic.
“They are absolutely heroes,” Lowes Foods spokesperson Kelly Davis said of the company’s employees.
Though many restaurants are maintaining pick-up or delivery services to stay afloat, business is down drastically since Governor Roy Cooper’s order to close dine-in services March 17. This move amplifies demand on other food suppliers, which are already seeing cleared shelves as a result of panic-buying.
Below is a snapshot of what essential employees say it’s like to work and be around people, while others try to stay away from crowds, in the midst of the coronavirus in the Cape Fear region:
Before each shift, Lauryn Walton said her out-of-state grandmother calls to make her promise she won’t make any contact with customers.
Alternating between the registers and the new role passing out disinfectant wipes at the “sanitation station” at the Carolina Beach Road Harris Teeter, Walton said she’s not worried about getting sick.
“There’s only so much that we can do — or so much that I can do. It’s not like I can feel like, ‘Oh, I’m just not going to come into my job. I still need the money and people still need the help. If we shut down, it’s going to be like ‘The Purge,'” she said.
A customer, masked and gloved, recently apologized for his appearance while checking out food. “I’m like, sir, you don’t have to explain yourself. You’re just being cautious,” she said.
When things slow down, she said her manager has begun handing her cleaning materials, telling her, “If it looks like someone could touch it, clean it,” Walton said.
Around 5 p.m. Monday, Los Portales Supermercado is slammed.
“It’s really crazy busy. Everyone’s packing, getting all the supplies they possibly can. It’s hectic — it’s kind of like around Christmas time,” Eyma Villaseñor said of her family’s business.
The Hispanic supermarket’s doors are kept propped open to keep people from touching them, Villaseñor said.
Los Portales offers a money sending service, MoneyGram, which allows people to transfer funds back home to their families in other countries.
Monday, the U.S. dollar-Mexican peso conversion rate reached its all-time high, at $25, a stark jump from $18.50 mid-February. “So it’s drastically changed, everyone is trying to send as much money as they can,” Villaseñor said. “People want it to keep going up here so they can send more money, but people in Mexico, they don’t want it to go up because things are raising prices a lot.”
Aside from the money sending service, Villaseñor said the store is running out of canned goods, flour, beans, and meats, but is restocking as quickly as possible.
Ebony Bellamy has two teenage sons, ages 16 and 17. As a single mom, Bellamy is now down to just her job at Dollar Tree in Leland to support her family.
Governor Roy Cooper’s adjustment to the May 15 gathering and school closure ban, to go into effect Wednesday, will legally close Bellamy’s mobile hair salon business.
“We have to come to work, period,” Bellamy said Monday while assisting customers. “Things still have to go on.”
Asked if being around customers during the coronavirus crisis made her nervous, she said yes and no. “Yeah, I’m scared because we don’t’ really know what’s going on. But I’m not afraid. I have no choice.”
Either way, Bellamy said she’s got to stay positive. “I’m one of the ones, I still have to do it with a smile,” she said.
For Laith Sara, Monday was “just another day.” As a cashier at the Monkey Junction Pit Stop, Sara has noticed behavior changes in customers.
“People are very scared about their surroundings,” he said. “People trying to get in and get out quicker.”
Over the past week or so, he’s noticed regulars aren’t coming in as frequently. He assumes many may have lost their jobs or hours as businesses take a beating.
“Most of my customers aren’t showing up to buy things,” he said. Is he nervous about the virus? “I am but I’m not. I just let God handle it all. If it’s my time, it’s my time,” he said.
Both Carletta Bress, a Leland Walmart associate, and Jazmyn Dunbebin, a cashier at the Speedway gas station off Oleander, said they haven’t noticed much of a difference since the outbreak started in North Carolina.
“It’s a normal day to me,” Bress said.
Dunbebin said she has a healthy immune system and isn’t worried about the virus. “People are more cautious, they stay away, they back up a little bit, but that’s about it,” she said.
Bress’s coworker, Jada Bellamy, has noticed some changes.
“There’s people wearing gloves, masks. A lot of anxious behavior. Panic buying. A lot of people asking about trucks and things,” Bellamy said.
Midday Monday, the supermarket was a bit hectic. “We have our own concerns as well. We encounter so many people,” Bellamy said.
Has anyone thanked them lately? Ebony Lacewell said some customers do. Monday morning, a customer got a hold of a walkie talkie and thanked all the associates for being there.
Others, agitated at long lines, have aired frustration out at the associates. “What we have as far as registers open is what we have. We have people out of work bc they have kids and they can’t be here. And then you have other people that’s just afraid to come out to have the interaction, afraid of catching the virus,” Lacewell said.
“Once I put that perspective out there, most of them calm down.”
Walmart associate Lynn Brown, 63, has two sons at home and elderly aunts she helps check on. Lately, she hasn’t been around her older aunts. “Because oh it would devastate me if one of them caught something from me. So yeah, I think about it. But what are you going to do? I think about it constantly, but then here I am. Because if we don’t come, then what?”
Brown said she’s had to ask for more space from customers who aren’t practicing a 6-foot social distance — a request that shouldn’t offend, but sometimes does, she said.
“We know that of course that the role that we play is essential. But I don’t think people really have come to grips with the gravity of it all,” she said. “We just keep doing what we’re doing so that our families can eat. And your families can eat. So, what are you going to do?”
At Lovey’s Natural Foods & Cafe in Wilmington, business has considerably dipped since closing the health market’s staple hot and salad bar.
“It’s just different because we had all that traffic coming in and going out all day long,” the store’s owner, Marie Montemurro, said Monday afternoon.
Though she said she has some health issues, Montemurro said she eats healthy, takes supplements, and doesn’t get frantic.
It’s been difficult getting suppliers to provide all that’s being asked of them, Montemurro said. Her last order of toilet paper was “gone in a minute.”
“It’s hard to keep stuff in stock,” she said. Since last week, Montemurro has had to reduce her kitchen staff from six to one, while still trying to rotate employees at the front register to give them hours if they need it. “I’ve got to take care of my people,” she said.
“Most importantly, we love our community and everybody needs to shop local and support local. Because there are a lot of businesses that are in need of support because during times like this, when they’re struggling as it is, we don’t want to lose any of our wonderful awesome stores, be it restaurants, or wonderful independent stores.”
At the sanitation station in the Carolina Beach Road Harris Teeter, 17-year-old Izabela Dicicco hands out wipes all customers walking in.
“You’ve got to be cautious in here because everybody touches everything,” she said.
Lately, she’s noticed some shoppers have started to pick up goods for their elderly or at-risk relatives.
The store has run out of toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and meats while trying to restock supplies. Her coworker, Lauryn Walton, said sanitizer at their registers “went missing” and are now kept out of sight. “It is crazy in here. It was crazy in here last week. This week has not been that bad,” Dicicco said Sunday evening.
With two younger brothers and a grandmother who frequently visits her home, Dicicco gets nervous not during, but after she gets off her shift.
“When I watch the news it scares me,” she said. “As long as I’m putting hand sanitizer on I feel good. But going home I’m scared.”
Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee Still at firstname.lastname@example.org