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Documentary: How are grocery workers in Pennsylvania handling the pandemic?

These essential workers are on the front lines during the outbreak. We spent the night at one Central Pa. store.

  • Joseph Darius Jaafari

We may not be able to congregate in a movie theater, playhouse or bar these days, but there’s still plenty of close interaction with other humans, especially in grocery stores.

Coronavirus, the medical world says, is more contagious than the flu. The virus can be spread by asymptomatic people through droplets floating in the air. And it can linger on surfaces and items long enough to be transmitted by touch. That’s why we’re bombarded with instructions to wash our hands and stay at least 6 feet away from others.

Based on media coverage from around the country, some grocery workers are anxious. After all, customers in grocery stores touch everything. And employees have to then rearrange or restock those items. We wanted to do a documentary about these workers to offer a glimpse into their lives.

So on March 25 we went into a Karns Quality Foods grocery store in Lemoyne, a suburb of Harrisburg in Cumberland County. We wanted to follow a few workers and show our audience how these people were staying vigilant to keep the virus from spreading. What we discovered was something much more nuanced – some workers were worried, others not so much.

First, I want to note this documentary is not a story about people doing bad things. Grocery workers are just like us, struggling to keep up with the news about coronavirus while living through the same disruptions affecting the rest of us.

On March 25, we found the workers at one Karns store were still coming to terms with the recommendations coming from health professionals. And that makes sense, considering how quick the news has changed in just the past 10 days. When we were shooting this documentary, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that masks only be worn by medical workers and people who were ill with COVID-19 or tested positive for coronavirus. Now, the CDC is encouraging all Americans to wear homemade masks outside the home.

All of that is to say that the virus response is always changing, and people and businesses are doing their best to adapt.

On April 5, the day before we published FRONTLINERS, the CEO of Karns Quality Foods, Scott Karns, reached out to me. He described the changes made in the week-and-a-half since we visited. Karns store managers gave all staff masks to wear (though, it’s only a recommendation to wear them), all employees have gloves available to them, and the stores installed barriers to shield cashiers and customers from breathing on each other. A letter sent to employees also notified them that their wages are being increased by $2.00 an hour during the pandemic – in many cases that’s at least a 20% pay-increase.

Karns said he and his managers are doing everything they can to make sure the staff at their stores keep up with the CDC’s recommendations. “Two weeks ago, things were very different,” he said.

He’s right about that. The big takeaway from FRONTLINERS isn’t that grocery stores are failing to protect us. It’s something more complicated.

At the time we filmed, we knew that we needed to stay a minimum of six feet from the workers we interviewed if we didn’t have a mask on (which we did so we could film close ups). We also knew we needed to wear gloves to avoid touching surfaces. And we needed to constantly wash or sanitize our hands. It wasn’t easy. We slipped up more than a few times.

And for the most part, the employees we witnessed stuck to the gloves and distance rules. While the six-foot rule is a hard one for a produce worker or cashier to follow, most workers we saw dealing with customers wore gloves. But not everyone wore them, and almost no one wore masks. And as many epidemiologists have said, there needs to be uniformity in prevention strategies if we want this social distancing policy to work.

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