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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006
Voices / Opinion roundup

A stunned community

From cashiers on the front lines to business leaders, people in the region are reeling with abrupt change in routine and fear for the future

MacLean Gander, a regular contributor to these pages (and a member of the board of directors of Vermont Independent Media, the nonprofit that publishes The Commons), amassed these thoughts in telephone interviews with some sources for his news story this week (see page A1). These workers and managers have been reeling from the rapid changes imposed by the coronavirus and the threat of COVID-19. Collectively, their observations provide a stark snapshot of what is happening to the Windham County economy and to our community as a result.

Cashier (name withheld)

This interview was conducted with a woman in her late 20s who has lived in the area all her life. She has worked in various supermarkets in the area as a cashier and in other roles; she and her husband both qualify as essential workers. She is vulnerable because she has had chronic respiratory health problems in the past year. She works at one of the supermarkets in Brattleboro and spoke with The Commons on the condition that we not disclose her identity because she fears losing her job if she were identified by her employer.

* * *

I’m pretty scared, to be honest. I’m really nervous. I have a lot of worries, and I have general anxiety disorder anyway. And this definitely elevated that.

I suffer from chronic bronchitis and asthma, so I am at risk, even though I’m not elderly. And working with the public every day, you know, just watching the people stockpiling food, it really brings that level of fear right into your face.

I’m a part-time associate. My hours have basically doubled. I went from 23 hours a week to about 40-plus.

I’m a cashier, so I’m right on the front lines. We started our 6 a.m. opening for our elderly customers. We’re very busy with that. I did the 6-a.m.-to-2-p.m. shift today.

I’ve done retail my entire working life and got my first job when I was 17 at Market Basket bagging groceries. So I’m familiar with the grocery store life. When I’m not in a supermarket, I’m in a coffee shop.

You can’t get your meat cut to order; you can only buy what’s called “pre-sliced,” and you’re not self serving anything, which is a very strange thing for me to see.

I was pushing carts on Monday. We have signs right at the front entrances now, asking people to please maintain 6 feet between customers and associates. And I had customers walking right up behind me — a couple of them brushed my jacket.

As an employee, I can’t say anything — that would be me being rude to customers. So I just have to make myself as small as possible while still trying to maintain a friendly customer-service persona.

And it’s just getting really, really difficult. We don’t really have a lot of support from management or corporate. Um, one of the things that I wanted to mention to you that I needed to remain anonymous for was you know, due to being at risk, I want to wear a mask. Yeah, I have my father game me an N-95 mask,, you know, the really good ones. Yeah. And I asked management if I could wear one. And I was told I’m not allowed to by my store management.

And I said, “Okay, well maybe that’s just a store-level thing; I’m gonna call corporate.” So I called corporate, and corporate told me the same thing — that I am not allowed to wear a N95 mask.

I am not allowed to wear any type of facial protection. If I am concerned about contracting the virus, I can self-quarantine for two weeks, which would be great if I had sick time. But as a part-time employee, I don’t receive sick time.

It’s really scary, you know, especially with the lack of stuff on the shelves. I don’t have a $1,000 cushion in my bank accounts to do a $600 grocery shop. I don’t have credit cards that I can put a grocery shop on.

My husband works, too, but we don’t have a lot to be able to prepare for a situation like this. We’ve been doing as much grocery shopping as we can, picking up what we can. But when it really comes down to it, we’re gonna get sick from just eating what we’ve been able to afford to buy: a lot of spaghetti, a lot of mac and cheese, a lot of starchy carbs — cheap, poor-people food.

You know, it’s really unfortunate. I feel like that’s a place that a lot of Americans are in right now.

Up until today, we had hand sanitizer available: little dispensers that are attached to every register. If we’re not out by the time we close today, we’ll be out very early tomorrow morning. And we don’t know when we’re getting more.

When I asked my HR manager what I should do about that — and if I could go wash my hands in between every transaction. I was told that was excessive.

We were instructed to use the disinfectant that we’re using the cleaner register belt on our hands, even though the disinfectant bottle clearly states that it’s damaging the skin. I brought that to the attention of my management, and they told me that they were probably just misinformed about the safety of it being in contact with skin and asked if I could let the rest of my co-workers know not to spray it on their hands.

As of as of tomorrow, I don’t really know what we’re going to be doing to protect ourselves. We do have gloves available there in the maintenance closet, though — but they’re not at registers or anything. So you kind of have to take it upon yourself to go supply yourself with them. They’re not supplying us with any real protection.

We’re not really allowed to talk about it when people ask us about the virus. This is such a big thing that’s happening all over the world right now. It’s like you walk in the doors of our store, and other than the shelves being empty, coronavirus doesn’t really exist.

It’s so strange to me the harsh, harsh nature of it all.

Jon Potter

Jon Potter is executive director of LatchisArts, the nonprofit that owns the Latchis building on Main Street and operates both its hotel and its theater, an iconic anchor of Brattleboro downtown business.

* * *

I just think COVID-19 has come on us so quickly that it’s very hard to assess the impact at this point. The impact is already tremendously throughout our community, but in our business and on a personal level, it’s just swept across everything.

On March 7 — which is only 17 days ago, or about 360 hours ago — we had a circus event in the main theaterM and it was very well attended. There was a looming concern about the coronavirus, but we still had the event, and we were still we were still operating and thriving as a theater.

In that in this short period of time, this thing has just wiped through our whole community. The speed with which it went from a concern to the only topic in the world is just a staggering. It’s stunning.

On the corporation side, we immediately laid off about 80 percent of our staff.

We are still operating the hotel. No one’s traveling, other than a few people who regularly come to town for important business — those make up the lion’s share of the guests. We feel like we’re still supporting them and we have that role to play. There may be other roles to play if this community ever needs to import medical expertise or any other kind of expertise. We might play a role in hosting them.

As of now, we’re trying to keep the hotel open on the bare minimum skeletal staff, but our movie theater and art performance venue has been dark for eight days. There is no idea when we’ll be able to reopen.

People are dealing with the shock and trauma of it all and acting very much like people who are shocked and traumatized. The other thing is that in these situations, the biggest desire is for human connection — in many ways, we’ve been deprived of that as a mechanism to deal with this. I think that’s just made it harder.

People are finding creative ways to connect, but we’re social people and social animals, and this crisis has really cut us to our core. My concern is not just for our lack of ability to get through this, but for all of downtown’s ability to survive. I won’t take much pleasure in having come through this if two thirds of the downtown doesn’t make it back along with us, and if that happens, it will be a time of deep grief.

For me, I love this town. And I feel that this town is facing a crisis like it hasn’t in anybody’s memory. You know, we don’t know what the yellow fever and typhoid and cholera epidemics were like back in in older times. This is our first taste of that. There aren’t really many folks out there who even remember polio anymore.

It’s just unknowable, and ungraspable, all the while inflicting tremendous personal pain and economic pain and social pain. It’s really quite brutal to deal with.

Adam Grinold

Adam Grinold is executive director of Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation, which — among other business-development activities — owns and manages the Cotton Mill and the Book Press business incubator buildings. The interview started with the question: “What kind of support for local businesses is there going to be, and how quickly will it come?”

* * *

Great question. Not soon enough, and not enough of it. The sad truth.

In Vermont, we have somewhat recent experience in dealing with natural disaster: Tropical Storm Irene, so we have an understanding of what responses and resources do come to assist. But that disaster just affected 12 to 15 communities. This affects every town in our state, and it is not just Vermont — this is every town in every state.

We have no sense of what those resources will look like. We all watch and listen to what’s happening in the federal debate right now with legislation. We’re listening to representatives of our federal delegation who are giving us insights into that. So we remain hopeful that there will be some business-forgivable loans, which sort of turn into grants. We certainly continue to advocate for that as a critical aspect of recovery.

What we have available now is debt. We’re counseling businesses not to run out and take more debt without fully knowing their situation.

The continued evolution of the virus — and the health and safety response necessary to curtail its spread — is preventing businesses from knowing the full extent of its impact. So until we really get a little deeper into those questions, frankly, people won’t know what they have to plan for. And that makes it a really challenging situation.

Our view of this is we’re the firefighters, and we don’t run into the burning building. When we don’t know exactly, we don’t yet have all the tools needed to put this fire out. We need grants, and we need loans.

We’re going to need businesses to really have the fortitude to pause and assess their current financial situation.

They can project a week to have no sales or declining sales. And they can certainly understand their costs. So they can do what we’re calling a stress test, where they begin to know their position maybe a month from now.

In every day out after that, there is more guesswork, because they don’t know when sales will return. But they certainly know where their expenses are going. They certainly know what their balance sheet is today.

And so, the only way for businesses to get through this time of uncertainty is — first and foremost — with solid information, beginning with their current situation.

Right now, no grant can get them from now through uncertainty. What other options do they have? How many expenses can they shrink? That is what’s incumbent upon every business owner to force themselves through that process now.

That’s where we’re coming in.

Our entire team is pivoting to being business-support folks. We’ll be working one-on-one with individuals to help them through this process.

For some, debt is an option. We have a micro-loan program that’s for businesses with 10 employees or fewer. It may be that a $2,400 loan is enough to get them through three weeks from now, through the uncertainty to know that they’ll still be there, they’ll still be fighting, and that they can begin to have a sense of the new normal.

Brattleboro Retreat employee (name withheld)

For several years, this individual has worked at the Brattleboro Retreat in a professional capacity in direct contact with patients. Like several sources contacted by The Commons, we are withholding the identity of this person because of fear of repercussions.

* * *

Nothing about my work has changed since the virus struck. The area where management and administration are is locked so you can’t go in directly. What the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends is impossible. There’s no distancing. We’re in close proximity all together.

You’ve got patients coming in from different places, and you’ve got workers coming in from different places, and everybody’s kind of congregated, very close together without being able to follow CDC guidelines. You can follow them as far as washing hands as much as possible, but we’ve been told not to wear masks.

For example, one person shows a temperature that’s elevated. What does that mean? That whole unit has eight staff. And there’s no plan for that — no real guideline that we have.

I talked to a supervisor, and I asked exactly: What’s the plan? And she said she didn’t know, that there’s an algorithm.

I don’t know what that meant. I think it’s an algorithm to make decisions about whether someone has the virus.

But other than that, I think our plan is to dump our medical issues, as we have always done, at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital.

I’m expecting one person to show up and tell me they got exposed to coworkers because they think they’re exposed, but that’s neither here nor there. Without knowing, any one of us is going to bring the virus to whatever unit.

We do have people that most kitchens not very well trained in terms of how to deal with this. They’re not nurses or any sort of medical professional. And then the janitors move between floors, and between myself and everybody else. It’s just so crazy.

As unfortunate as this is, it is necessary, because this is just like a dress rehearsal. We should be happy that the disease itself is just mild to to deadly, you know — not a really high percentage of mortality compared to what may come next.

I know we’re not going to learn from it, because that’s where we are. It will pass through us and maybe come back next year.

In the nature of my job, I’m going get it. I’m just hoping it just will not be that severe.

Sabine Rhyne

Sabine Rhyne, the Brattleboro Food Co-op’s general manager, has been answering the phones for pick-up delivery and working to assure that the enterprise responds to the COVID-19 crisis in a way that balances the needs of customers and shareholders, and staff. She talked to The Commons on Tuesday about how the Co-op is impacted by the crisis and its management.

* * *

We’re trying to balance the needs that our community has to access food in a relatively safe manner and the needs that our staff has to provide the food and also be safe.

So because people come into grocery stores and shop and how one shops is not usually necessarily under the same guidelines, the CDC suggestions of how things should happen, we see a lot of opportunities to be exposed to the virus.

And so over time, we’ve had to make changes. Little by little (hopefully), people were able to react to our changes as well as they can to try to minimize as much as this kind of overlap of exposure as possible.

We have forced ourselves to close certain departments to make food available only certain ways, which is hard on people. It’s hard on just access, and it’s hard on people’s habits that we have faithfully been training for.

It’s hard on everybody, and it’s an unfortunate thing, but we’ve been trying to continue to keep the store open but keep the traffic patterns light in the store.

As we get further into this crisis, our staff is getting more and more nervous. That’s why we responded with the curbside pickup idea. And now we’re in a situation where we want to expand the idea to keep more people out of the store.

But we still have to take the time to organize and reposition staff to be able to support that way of doing business, which is very inefficient.

We’re in this in-between place right now where we’re having a really hard time getting through that transition. That said, I’m going to continue to work on making that transition a little more effective. I think we probably will.

Very soon — I’m hoping by this weekend — we’ll expand curbside hours to much earlier in the morning. And we’re also exploring the possibility of partnering with a local organization to do deliveries down the road.

It’ll be probably a couple weeks before we can get that really working. But we’re hard at work that now to again give another option, especially if people get sick in their homes and need to be able to access food.

Our staff has really been ready and willing to do anything, to reconfigure themselves in any way possible, to get the work done. Whatever the work that’s needed right now is done with some trepidation.

We all know that we’re exposing ourselves more than the average bear and that’s really hard on us. But we’re just trying to minimize it as much as possible. Our managers have been here, days upon days. So we’re trying to make sure people get a day off. Just keep their immune system working.

But, I’d say overall, it’s been incredibly positive and can do. We also want to be really careful to support the staff that has to stay home for a variety of reasons. because they need not be here. We also want to be really careful to not incentivize people to come in who shouldn’t come in.

I think the community has been incredibly grateful and supportive overall to our staff and our ability to provide. Occasionally, people have second guessed some things that we do or some reasons that we try to manage things a particular way. And I think that’s a reaction is a stress that we’re all under.

But I just would hope that everyone comes to whatever situation they’re in with their best selves.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #554 (Wednesday, March 25, 2020). This story appeared on page B1.

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