BY BECCA LOUX AND ALEX HOEFT | Moonshine Ink
For updates on local COVID-19 cases and policies as well as state and national recommendations and updates, see Moonshine’s rolling feed.
The necessities of the 21st century are tumbling down the rabbit hole. In the new COVID-19 reality emerging everywhere, those who ensure our key need for food are scrambling to keep our community fed and so far are doing it rather successfully.
Aside from medical assistance to those who may be infected, one of the main concerns is having enough food to last out a period of social distancing and self-isolation that President Trump acknowledged could extend to July or August on Monday.
(It’s worth noting that some medical professionals see an even longer timeline; for example, Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the center for infectious disease research and policy at the University of Minnesota told MSNBC Monday that the timeline of isolation tactics will “blow right past” the president’s prediction.)
The area’s major chain grocery stores have been in a frenzy responding to shortages caused by bulk buying. Information is scarce about stocking, employee safety, and policy changes in the age of COVID-19 because many (including Save Mart, Safeway, and Raley’s) are operating on a corporate policy not to speak with reporters at the local level.
“Currently, our store’s primary focus is on our customers and ensuring the safety of our employees and customers, so we’re not entertaining any interviews at this time,” said Victoria Castro, public affairs manager for The Save Mart companies.
In an email to Moonshine Ink, Castro was able to provide limited information on the availability of goods at the Truckee Save Mart location: “We have a steady stream of products coming in from our warehouses. We are working with our vendors and suppliers to ensure the ongoing availability of high demand products,” she wrote. “If a specific product is not on our shelves today, customers should check back the next day as we are working around the clock to replenish our shelves.” The store’s current hours are 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Safeway, too, has been experiencing empty shelves and closing at night to restock. An employee who isn’t named due to the store’s policy against speaking to the press on coronavirus said that the managers were far too busy taking on roles they don’t normally perform to talk, anyway.
“All our managers have been up in the checkstand pretty much all morning,” said the employee. “We’re busy, we’re slammed in here; we’ve even shut the store down at nighttime to stay ahead of it. It’s kind of crazy.”
Safeway is open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., and the pharmacy is operating under regular hours (they have always closed at 1:15 p.m. for a pharmacist lunch break, during which time California law mandates that no medicines are sold, though a pharmacy employee said that the schedules often overlap, leaving it open during that window). Rite Aid said they are also under a corporate policy not to comment on the local level.
It’s not just product availability that has been affected by COVID-19 isolation stock buying: Many grocery stores are finding they don’t have enough staff as more food establishments are shut down and people prepare for longer self-isolation.
“To keep up with demand, we are looking to hire 1,000 additional positions in our FoodMaxx, Save Mart, and Lucky stores throughout California and Northern Nevada, as well as our warehouses in Roseville and Merced; including multiple positions for our Truckee store,” wrote Save Mart’s Castro in an email.
New Moon Natural Foods has adopted a protocol for dealing with the pandemic: No more than 20 customers are allowed into the store at a time (those waiting line up outside); upon entrance, customers must swing by the hand washing station, after which each person is given a freshly sanitized grocery cart or basket to do their actual shopping. Additionally, owner Billy Griffin explained that every surface anyone would touch from corner to corner of the store is sanitized five times a day.
Employees who once worked in customer-facing areas of the store are shifting around to perform such duties as stocking.
“A week ago we were lowly grocery clerks,” Griffin said. “Now we’re front-line first responders serving the community, putting ourselves at risk, and these people still do it for $15 an hour. They do it with a smile on their face and they do it because they love their people, they love their town.”
To his nervous customers — and he’s talked with a few who are wary at the sight of empty shelves, Griffin said it’s about logistics and distribution, not about food quantity; warehouses are still full of food waiting to be delivered.
“There is plenty of food in the supply chain,” he continued. “The issues we’re having up here in Tahoe are ones of distribution pinches. What’s happening is the trucks are all overloaded, overweight, and they don’t have enough trucks on their route so the distributors are limiting the amounts they’ll deliver until they can get more drivers and trucks on the road, which will take a week or two.”
Even with nerves running high, Griffin has seen hardly any panic buying at New Moon, even with a number of Bay Area escapees circling the region. The Truckee community spirit is still prevalent.
“If you’ve lived here very long at all, you’re fairly hardy,” Griffin said. “If you lived the last three winters here, you can put up with stuff. People do … Even when the number or percentage of familiar faces walking through the door is lower, it seems when people come here they take a piece of that we’ll-get-through-it attitude.”
On Wednesday, Griffin and his team began the day by allowing only seniors and immunocompromised shoppers into the store for the first hour.
Restaurants provide another option for the survival necessity of good nutrition, and Tahoe/Truckee establishments have been developing adapted access plans such as takeout only and free delivery services to aid vulnerable residents and other community members.
Splashed across social media are the announcements of restaurants and eateries advertising their efforts to move to takeout and delivery options, anything to stay afloat and support the community.
Callie GillanFarr, who owns CB’s Bistro in Carnelian Bay, said a couple of months ago she didn’t believe in the virus. Her attitude has certainly changed since.
“We wipe down all our menus between each person’s use, all the way down to their check cards and their pens to the chairs,” she said. “It’s almost like we follow them out.”
The Italian restaurant is also supplying single-use paper towels anywhere someone might have to open a door. Buckets sit outside restrooms for dirty towels and hand sanitizer, too. GillanFarr told Moonshine that she hopes people think she’s a germaphobe with all the effort she’s putting in to keep things clean.
Operating hours have also shortened, from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. to now 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. The result has been a decrease in staff and hours. GillanFarr explained that her biggest challenge, however, isn’t necessarily the lack of business; it’s the customers and their seemingly unbelieving attitudes.
“Yesterday people were feisty,” she said. “They don’t understand why they could sit at a table the day before and now they can’t. They also will come in and our verbiage is, ‘You’re welcome to order right away and order a beer right away. You must sit away from everyone else in here. Once your food arrives you must cash out and go; you can’t eat here.’ And people will say I’m not done with my beer and they’ll open their pizza and start eating.”
The customer support, she continued, is key. “If I can’t get them to conform to the guidelines we have to follow, that’s where I would see a full shutdown.”
Truckee’s Squeeze In location is currently still offering dine-in options at 50% capacity with extra sanitary efforts in place, though manager Katie Sullivan said staff is encouraging people to order online or over the phone for pick-up. During her interview, she paused to hand off a to-go order, thanking the man for his support “during this trying time.”
The decrease in patrons has resulted in skeletal remains of workers on hand — Sullivan said she’ll be pretty much alone onsite for the next week. The restaurant’s human resources team is currently figuring out benefits and extra options for the associates not working.
And should more stringent rules come down the line, demanding closures of restaurants as has been done where other Squeeze In locations are, Sullivan said her team will roll with it.
“Depending on what the mandates say, we just want to follow as many rules and keep everyone as safe as possible,” she continued. “We’ll definitely be willing to walk orders out to the car; we’re working with Uber Eats to find a way to get it delivered straight to their door.”
Main Image Caption: ZERO SHELF LIFE: Local grocery stores are finding themselves devoid of stocked shelves, though New Moon Natural Foods owner Billy Griffin says this is a logistics issue (not enough trucks to deliver food), not a lack in quantity of food. Photo by Wade Snider/Moonshine Ink