Grocers are essential during the coronavirus crisis. And they are afraid.

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AUSTIN, Texas – Every day, grocers restock toilet paper, eggs, products and canned goods as quickly as items fly off the shelves.

They disinfect keyboards, freezer handles and cases while hundreds of people sneak around, sometimes standing too close to be comfortable in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Some work for hours behind transparent plastic barriers installed at the crates, ramparts against sudden sneezing or coughing which can propel germs.

They are not doctors or nurses, but they were praised for their dedication by Pope Francis, former US President Barack Obama and countless people on social media as the number of infections and deaths increases.

From South Africa to Italy to the United States, grocers – many of whom work in low-wage jobs – are at the forefront amid global closings, their work seen as essential to maintaining the flow of food. essential foods and products. Some fear getting sick or bringing the virus home to vulnerable loved ones, and frustration mounts as others demand better workplace protections, including shorter hours to rest, and risk premiums for working closely with the public.

“Everyone is scared everywhere, here in South Africa and all over the world,” said Zandile Mlotshwa, cashier at the Spar supermarket in the Johannesburg suburb of Norwood.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, and the vast majority survive. But for others, especially the elderly and people with existing health conditions, it can be more serious, even causing pneumonia or death.

In the United States, a handful of states – Minnesota and Vermont were the first – have given grocers a special classification that allows them to place their children in state-paid child care while they work. Unions in Colorado, Alaska, Texas and many other states are urging governors to raise grocers to the rank of first responder.

“The responsibility of the government is to step up those moments,” said Sarah Cherin, chief of staff to the International Union of United Food and Commercial Workers in Seattle, the first US epicenter of COVID-19.

The union, which represents approximately 23,000 grocers and 18,000 health care workers, initially obtained concessions for higher wages.

“We have always been a group of people who come to work when others stay at home,” said Cherin. “Our workers need the same protection as everyone else. “

American grocery and food delivery workers are insisting that employers pay more and provide masks, gloves, gowns and access to tests. Whole Foods workers have called for a recent “work stoppage” to demand better conditions, including double wages. A group of independent contractors for the Instacart grocery delivery service came out to force more protections.

Some of the largest employers in the United States respond.

Kroger, the country’s largest grocery chain, said it will give all hourly workers a $ 2 “hero bonus” until April 18. This follows temporary wage increases of $ 2 by Walmart, Target and others.

Walmart’s increase only affects hourly workers in distribution centers, but it also gives bonuses to full-time and part-time workers. Walmart, the country’s largest private employer, and Target will provide masks and gloves for front-line workers and limit the number of customers in stores. Walmart takes the temperature of its nearly 1.5 million employees when they show up for work.

“Most will see it as a welcome relief,” Walmart spokesperson Dan Bartlett said of the new measures.

But that doesn’t alleviate the fear when buyers break the rules, including social distancing.

Jake Pinelli, who works at a ShopRite in Aberdeen, New Jersey, said customers don’t stay within 2 feet of others and don’t usually wear masks or gloves. Staff members have protective gear, but younger employees often give it to older colleagues or those they know have health problems.

“Most of us are terrified,” said Pinelli. But he stays because he wants to help.

“Not only do I have bills to pay, but it’s the only way right now that I can do anything for my community and help,” said Pinelli.

Some fell ill.

The Shaw supermarket chain told employees at six stores in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont last week that one of its employees had been diagnosed with COVID-19. The company reminded workers to wash their hands regularly and stay at home if they don’t feel well.

At the Organic Food Depot in Norfolk, Virginia, the money is no longer used. Customers cannot bring reusable bags. Children under the age of 16 are prohibited.

“If someone gets sick in the store, the store will likely close,” said manager Jamie Gass.

Gass, 47, said his wife had asthma, which means she would be more vulnerable to the coronavirus. Yet he feels pride in work that helps ensure that people are fed during a crisis.

“Am I afraid I can catch this?” Absolutely, ”said Gass. “But I’m sure everyone is in this position. I’m just taking as many precautions as possible, so I don’t have to worry as much. ”

In Italy, where more than 14,000 people have died from COVID-19, consumers seem to prefer small shops and family markets.

One of them, the Innocenzi grocery store in Rome, was founded in 1884 by Emanuela Innocenzi’s grandfather. Its wooden shelves, marble entrance steps and expensive clerk customs await each customer in a different era. The small store now allows only two customers at a time.

A dentist’s office has provided masks that employees wipe with alcohol every day and reuse.

Emanuela Innocenzi has ignored the Pope’s praise.

“Doctors and nurses have special training,” she said. “It is our job. “

– The Associated Press

Associated Press editors Ben Finley in Norfolk, Virginia; Michael Casey in Boston; Alexandra Olson and Anne D’Innocenzio in New York; Frances Demilio in Rome; Andrew Meldrum in Johannesburg; and video journalist Rodrique Ngowi of Quincy, Massachusetts, contributed to this report.

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