Grocery Shopping In the Time of COVID-19

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It’s almost 7 a.m. – still half-dark when we pull into the supermarket parking lot. Other cars are already in position. We gear up for battle.

We practiced the drill on the way here. We go over it one more time. My husband will take the produce aisle. His instructions: something green and fresh. I will detour to dairy. The target: any kind of organic milk – 1%, 2%, whole milk? Doesn’t matter. Just, please, no skim. We’ll each grab a cart to save time. Minutes count. We’ll rendezvous in chicken.

I pull on thin plastic gloves and tie a bandana around my face. I bought the scarf on sale at Urban Outfitters months ago. Hadn’t anticipated using it quite this way. New Jersey now mandates we wear face coverings while shopping.

My husband ties on a mask he made out of an old blue tee shirt. He’s proud of his handiwork. He won’t allow me to take his picture.

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We look like aging bank robbers as we walk past the store guards. Yes, there are now guards at the entrance to the supermarket. They limit the number of shoppers, per state order, to 50% of capacity.

Only senior citizens are allowed into the store at this early hour. We stop – just for a few seconds – to disinfect the carts’ handles with sanitizing wipes. Then we’re off.

Hidden Dangers

The coronavirus has turned grocery stores into battlegrounds. The enemy is a master of camouflage.

Watch out for that normal-looking shopper nearby or the fresh heads of lettuce, unprotected from a casual cough. Either could be hiding the virus. You never know. The invisible foe could lurk on the handles of a freezer case or dance in the air near the canned beans.

As in all guerrilla warfare, you have to hit and run. No dilly-dallying.

I race down the dairy aisle past the cheese and yogurt and head right to the milk.

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Even at 7 a.m. the case is almost empty. On a high shelf, in the back, I spot a few cartons of the organic stuff. Oh no. Only the skim is accessible. I climb up on the edge of the refrigerator case and reach in as far as I can. My fingers spend a few minutes trying to coax the 1% milk forward.

Bottles of water next, and Woolite. I get the last small one. I feel both victorious and guilty.

At the chicken counter, a plentiful selection. This week, the limit is four. I take two.

My husband pushes his cart next to mine.

“How’d you do?” I ask. The last time we were here, the vegetable section was stripped bare. Now, it was bursting with produce.

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My husband holds up a sealed plastic bag of green beans, safe in their protective wrapping.

“Great,” he says. Then he shows me the broccoli – beautiful, fresh and crunchy. Unprotected.

“I couldn’t help it, it looked so good,” he says. I agree. We both know – the microscopic enemy could be hiding among those tight green florets.

He’s picked up bread and cereal as well. Good teamwork. We’ve been in the store for less than 15 minutes. We head for the checkout.

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We approach with trepidation. It’s our first face-to-face encounter with a stranger in days.

The checkout lady occupies a vulnerable central position. She stands behind a Plexiglas shield with red borders. She wears plastic gloves and a blue mask. Her credit card machine is wrapped in plastic.

She’s protecting herself from the store’s customers. At this moment, any of us could be harboring the enemy. She stays vigilant. But she’s friendly and helpful. She tells us the best days and hours to shop – when the store is empty and the shelves are full.

Timely, accurate intelligence. What could be better in this uncertain shopping world? No coupons can replace that intel right now. We say thank you. We are grateful for things we took for granted just a month ago.

Once we’re at the car, we carefully remove our disposable gloves. We transfer the bags of groceries. Then we slather Purell on our hands until they sting.

We’re already gearing up for the next skirmish.

It’s a war now – and we’re all in it together.

About Jane Kashlak

Jane Kashlak - a journalist, gardener and Cape Island resident - is writing a book.