The Misanthrope’s Guide to Covid Grocery Shopping

At 8 weeks and counting, you’d think we’d have the basics figured out. After all, for most of us, if we don’t have a dog, grocery shopping is the only reason to leave the house. And maybe because purchasing essentials is the only reason we’re leaving the house, interacting with others has become kind of terrifying.

Headlines such as “Why shopping for groceries is no longer fun” or “We’ll never shop for groceries the same way again” make it clear that a meandering stroll through the aisles is now a thing of the past. There is no lingering, no reading labels, no picking out the non-bruised apples. You need to get in there (after standing for 45 minutes in line), get your stuff, and get out as fast as possible.

As a cranky misanthrope, this is my general M.O. for shopping of all types anyway. Part of me is confused that people go to stores at all. If you can stay home and order everything online — apart from having to try things on — why the heck wouldn’t you?

Now that grocery shopping comes will a pile of rules and regulations, many of which are not the same from chain to chain, it’s hard to figure out how to do it safely and without pissing other people off. Especially when many of the rules don’t even make that much sense…

One-way Aisles
First off, who is even following the directions of the arrows on the floor? If you are, then you’re probably also giving the stink-eye to the people who don’t. But let’s try to understand why people are not following the arrows:

  •  some stores only have arrows made from tape at the end of each aisle, as opposed to all the way along each aisle; easy to miss if you’re turning the corner with a large, full cart
  • people are distracted by trying to stay away from others, by wanting to get in and out quickly, and by trying to find the stuff they need
  • while directional aisles are good in theory, they work on the premise that customers will go up and down each aisle, even if they don’t need to. In some cases, going down an aisle in the wrong direction to grab an item creates less exposure to others than walking further than you have to by taking the longer one-way route. This system also doesn’t consider people with disabilities for whom walking the extra distance is hard. (No, we’re not getting into the whole condescending “get a neighbour to shop for you” nonsense. Assume that some people need to shop for themselves.)
  • even if you do follow the arrows, what if the person in front of you stops to look at something? And takes forever. Are you supposed to pass them? On what side? Or wait for them to get their item and move on? The one time I stopped and politely waited for someone who was blocking the whole aisle, I got a huffy noise and attitude for my effort.

Don’t Touch the Products
I’ve seen a lot of grocery store staff mention this in interviews, and reminders in weekly flyers that ranged from “don’t touch the items” to a completely patronizing “shop with your eyes”. But you know what? People need to read the labels. We need to put things back and get a different one if cans are dented or packaging is ripped. We are going to continue to search for non-bruised fruit. Even more so when stores are not accepting returns. And in cases where shelves are bare of certain items, people with food allergies need to check labels on alternative products carefully to ensure things don’t contain ingredients that can kill them.

The recommendation for shopping has been one family member/one trip/once a week. Good luck with that. This is tough without a car, and for car-free households bigger than two people, even a large shopping trolly might not be enough, especially if you’re buying bulky items like toilet paper or diapers. Obviously it’s preferable to have fewer people in the store, and to shop as seldom as possible, but there has to be some room for accommodation; for single parents with no place to leave their kids, or for people who need help carrying stuff.

Here in Ontario, masks are not required by law in any public place, including grocery stores. Some grocery chains have made it a rule that customers must wear some kind of face-covering while in their stores. This is their right, although many people will likely take their business elsewhere. Whatever your opinion on masking (and we’re not getting into that here), it is important for customers and store owners to be aware that many people just can’t wear the things. People with certain respiratory issues find it hard to breathe. Some people have anxiety issues related to having their face or mouth covered. They don’t ever fit properly over beards or facial hair. And people with glasses, particularly with lenses treated with certain anti-glare coatings, find that no matter what they do, masks cause their glasses to fog up. People who choose to not wear a mask due to genuine health concerns are not required to justify or explain their health issues to anyone, including store staff, and especially other customers. Please don’t be that person who bullies, intimidates, or threatens (yes, it’s happening) others if their decision regarding masks is different from yours.

If you’re scared or angry that someone in the grocery store is not wearing a mask, there is a quick and easy fix to ensure your safety — step back so that you are 2 metres away from them. You should be doing that anyway, remember, whether anyone involved is wearing a mask or not. And if you choose to wear a mask, remember that it is not a protective force field — it does not give you the power or the right to get close to people when you should be maintaining a safe distance.

We should all be washing our hands regularly, in particular before and after grocery shopping. However, I’ve not seen a lot of stores make an effort to accommodate this. A few places have installed hand-sanitizer dispensers but they’re hard to find (the Longo’s near me has one by the grocery carts, the No Frills has always had one in the raw poultry section). Only St. Lawrence Market has done a decent job of ensuring hand sanitizer is readily available, with dispensers throughout both the permanent and farmers’ markets, and the last time we shopped there, we used hand sanitizer after every transaction. While the stuff can be hard to get right now, I would love to see all grocery stores be required to permanently have hand sanitizer dispensers throughout the store. Also handwashing stations at the entrance and exit. There are excellent free-standing sinks used at outdoor festivals, and there’s probably tens of thousands of them sitting idle in warehouses all over the world, since there will be no music festivals taking place anywhere this summer. Let’s get those set up at grocery stores to ensure that all customers are able to have clean hands during their shopping experience.

Be Kind/Nice/Don’t Kill Each Other
We’re all stressed right now. The longer this goes on, the worse that will get, and shopping is such a tense experience at the moment that many of us have been getting angry. Or mean. Or passive-aggressive. I’ve seen people yelling at each other for wearing masks, and for not wearing masks. For going down aisle the wrong way. For stepping too close to someone else. It’s really hard to be empathetic when we’re scared and angry. And as much as I have an overwhelming dislike of humanity, I’ve been reminding myself that I don’t know a person’s whole story. If they’re behaving badly, there’s probably a reason for it. If they’re walking slowly and impeding my progress down an aisle, wearing a mask (or not), or have their kids with them, I stop and think about why that might be. Maybe they have no other choice. Probably they’re just as stressed and worried and scared as I am. So maybe the best option is not to tell them off, or give them a good passive-aggressive glare, but to stop and give them some space. None of us want to be in the grocery store for a second longer than we have to, but I don’t have anywhere important to be that I can’t wait to let them pass.

If this is the new normal, and we cannot expect to go back to our old ways of shopping until a vaccine is readily available, then we have to make adjustments. Stores seem to be finally ramping up their online ordering systems to allow customers to avoid shopping in-store completely, and once-scarce items seem to have returned to the shelves, but in-store shopping is going to be fraught with problems for some time. Hopefully stores will find ways to improve their rules to be more logical and accommodating; more effort (and money) will go into providing handwashing or sanitizer; and we can all try to be a bit more patient (and forgiving) with each other.

4 thoughts on “The Misanthrope’s Guide to Covid Grocery Shopping”

  1. This was a really well time and well written summary of how I feel about grocery shopping. Yes, I used to love it! I actually looked forward to wandering aisles, finding a new item to try, my favourite brand has a new flavour, etc. It’s now my dreaded weekly activity that gives me a stress induced headache for days before and after. I’ll be glad when this is over as I don’t know how we will “get better” at shopping.

    1. Thanks Chris. We’ve been managing to score online orders with pick-up for the past couple of weeks and this system is a keeper for now. Maybe in the After Times as well, just for the relief of not having to deal with other people in any capacity. The delight in finding new items or new flavours is definitely dampered at the moment.

  2. Good read Sheryl. I’ve had some of the same experiences while shopping. Not my favourite thing to do these days. Even though I’m still working with the public, it’s a different world when you’re out there with the masses. Our local stores do have handwashing stations as well as sanitizer.

    1. Handwashing stations AND sanitizer?? Lap of luxury, you guys! 🙂

      PEI should be the model for any plans on how to deal with something like this again in the future. You guys figured it out and did a marvelous job of keeping everyone safe and healthy.

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