They’re not doctors at this Ayer business, but essential none the less

Grocery store staff talks keeping up morale and staying amid COVID-19 panic

Shop ‘n Save supermarket in Ayer is operating with gloves, masks and one-way aisles to help with social distancing. Pam Burgess of Ayer, who described herself as a “Jill of all trades,” cleans door handles with a bleach solution, which she does several times per shift. (SUN/Julia Malakie)

AYER – For the past few weeks, Karen DeGagne’s two stepsons have been asking her the same questions after work: Are you ok? Are you nervous?

“They don’t quite grasp the seriousness of everything,” DeGagne said, sporting a mask and gloves behind the checkout counter of the Ayer Shop ‘n Save on Thursday morning. “I just tell them I’m staying clean at work, I’m drowning in sanitizer.”

DeGagne, like most of the 76 employees at the grocery store, are keeping their spirits up and their faces covered to keep shelves stocked during the time of coronavirus panic.

The Fitchburg Road store, which has been open since October 2015, is one of the essential businesses still welcoming residents through its doors. The store is locally owned and is affiliated with the Hannaford chain of supermarkets.

Shop ‘n Save supermarket in Ayer is operating with gloves, masks and one-way aisles to help with social distancing. Cashier Karen DeGagne of Shirley checks out customers in the express line. (SUN/Julia Malakie)

Despite there being over 4,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Middlesex County, residents from multiple towns are still visiting the Shop ‘n Save in the hopes of finding food and toiletries still missing from shelves at other grocery stores.

Like health care workers and professionals, police officers, firefighters and others on the front lines, grocery stores and its workers are finally getting the recognition they deserve for keeping everyone’s shelves stocked through the pandemic. Gov. Charlie Baker has notices this, as well, especially since a worker for the Market Basket chain, employed at its Salem, Mass. store, tested positive for COVID-19 and succumbed to the dreaded virus.

It’s certainly not business as usual at the Ayer Shop ‘n save. Manager Mike Velardi said last week that this time of year is usually slower for business, especially when the New England Patriots aren’t in the playoffs. Co-manager Jake Szelest added that business started to pick up around the second week of March.

“The more that people talked about the virus, the more that sales spiked,” Szelest said. “Our employees weren’t concerned right away, but we wanted to prevent anyone from getting sick. No one was freaking out too much but we were happy to accommodate them.”

Velardi said the store sold three-times more pasta, soup, toilet paper and cleaning wipes than in previous months. Customers would also call Shop ‘n Save to see if they had hours different than other larger grocery store chains. Because of this higher influx of customers, not to mention manufacturing facilities having trouble keeping up with the increased demand, Velardi noted the difficulty to keep shelves full for customers.

Shop ‘n Save supermarket in Ayer is operating with gloves, masks and one-way aisles to help with social distancing. Kevin Young of Ayer restocks the produce department. (SUN/Julia Malakie)

“With the stay-at-home order, people don’t have much to do other than watch the news and stay up-to-date on information,” Szelest said.

“We consider ourselves fortunate we’re in the position to help people,” Velardi added. “I think our employees are great, people have really stepped up to go above and beyond.”

The Shop ‘n Save has still taken precautions to ensure the protection of the staffers. The store placed stickers on the floor in front of the checkout counters alerting people to stay six feet apart from each other. The store has also made its aisles single-lane, using stickers to make arrows directing customers up one aisle and down the other. Many of the staffers sport not only a mask but also gloves unpacking new food from its shipping boxes and stocking shelves.

One of those staffers is Tiffany Dennett of Ayer, sporting a face mask despite her reservations on something stuck to her face for her entire shift.

“I have an issue with masks on my face, I just have an anxiety about it,” she said.

Regardless, Dennett wears the mask and gloves for the good of the customers. She admits to being more worried about missing work than getting the virus, while also trying to keep it light when her work attire is akin to that of emergency room staff.

“We just try to make everyone else laugh and be not so nervous,” Dennett said. “We’re doing the best we can, we’ve got to keep moving forward.”

Jeff Rang, also of Ayer, understands that “somebody’s gotta do the job” even if the conditions are challenging.

“There’s a lot more people than usual, so that increases the risk because you don’t know when you’re going to come into contact with someone,” he explained. “I started wearing gloves within the last couple of weeks because my hands are in contact with so much.”

Rang said that morale amongst staff is still normal, though some are more tired than usual what with more customers meaning more work needed to be done.

“It’s more helping out other departments and taking more initiatives to clean,” Rang explained. “We’re sanitizing quite a bit.”

Carol Arnoff of Groton, another employee, feels the stresses of the social distancing herself given that she can’t see her grandchildren in-person at the moment and she understands that residents see coming to the store as a means of relief from being cooped-up. Fortunately, she doesn’t feel that stress when customers come in.

“People are actually fine for the most part,” she said. “The customers are great and appreciative. It’s actually rewarding to find the product they’re looking for.”