“We’ve been through disasters before,” said Jason Scholtka, Assistant Manager at Young’s Payless IGA Food Market in Copperopolis. One of those times was just last fall, when the small grocery store was one of few countywide to remain open through a series of public safety power shutoffs. “Other than us, there is nothing. It’s either going to Angels Camp or Sonora. This is our community, and we’re happy to be here.”
Much like during the shutoffs, when Young's Payless IGA store owner Kevin Young managed to keep the supermarket operating with a rented generator, employees and management have had to adapt quickly to a world with COVID-19—a world in which they are deemed “essential workers,” permitted to work in public spaces unlike so many others.
Scholtka told the Enterprise Monday that his staff has been “great” and ready to work, though the face masks and gloves worn by some customers, as well as the staggering of check stands to allow for six feet between employees, cast an ominous pall over what might otherwise appear to be business as usual.
Working hours have also shifted at the store to allow more time for stocking and sanitizing at night, while the team of roughly 40 employees struggles to keep up with the demands of panicked shoppers. As with most grocery stores statewide, toilet paper, eggs, bread, rice, milk and frozen meals are just a few items that have been cleared from shelves within the last couple weeks. But Scholtka says “things are looking up.”
“There is no food shortage at all. What we have is a labor shortage and people paranoid shopping,” Scholtka said. “As soon as everyone slows down and stops the panic buying, stores will be restocked.”
Some of that initial panic has already cleared, Scholtka said, with the last two days bringing in less shoppers and more inventory. Still, his advice to customers is to “buy what you need.” Due to shoppers hoarding items in recent weeks, Scholtka’s store and others have placed limits on the quantity of certain items customers can buy at once. The decision has been unpopular with some shoppers, he said, but he believes it necessary.
“If someone comes through buying 500 cans of tomato sauce, we’re gonna stop you,” Scholtka said. “There’s kind of a neighbor-against-neighbor mentality. In this time, we should be helping each other out.”
Though the future is uncertain, Scholtka is confident that grocery stores will remain open and that residents should not succumb to their fear of food shortages. He says that fear is driving some to call for the barring of out-of-towners from local stores, a request which he refuses to heed.
“That’s not what humankind is about,” he said. “We’re all Americans. We all need to survive.”
Alternatively, some locals have stepped up to the challenge of taking care of those who are most at risk of contracting COVID-19. Although Young's Payless IGA in Copperopolis does not have the manpower to deliver groceries to elderly residents, some individuals have put up flyers at local supermarkets offering their delivery services, with or without a fee.
Manager of Sierra Hills Market in Murphys, Stewart Segale, says that his team of approximately 35 employees has been able to provide grocery deliveries and curbside pickups to some customers. Some non-employees have also volunteered their time to help.
“When we can, we’re taking names and phone numbers and calling people as we have time to fill the orders,” Segale told the Enterprise on Monday.
Unlike big box stores like Save Mart in Angels Camp, which is adhering to a corporate-level mandate to set aside every Tuesday and Thursday from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. for high-risk populations to shop, Segale said that Sierra Hills has chosen not to implement designated shopping hours, per the county’s recommendation against high-risk individuals leaving their homes.
“Stay home and call,” Segale advised high-risk shoppers. In the coming days, he hopes his store will be able to fill more delivery orders as the “frenzy” of the last few weeks dies down. “If everyone followed the directions to stay home and only do essential shopping, we would have the time to deal with this.”
Segale also advises shoppers to refrain from bringing their families to the store when shopping is necessary, and to continue to practice social distancing in public spaces.
Due to the rapid changes experienced over the last few weeks, Sierra Hills and its affiliated stores, Sierra Hills Natural Foods in Murphys and Angels Food Market in Angels Camp, have shortened their hours to close at 7 p.m. daily. Hours may continue to change in the future, he said.
At Treat’s General Store, the only grocery store serving San Andreas, management has taken a more relaxed approach to the COVID-19 crisis. On Monday, owner John Lavaroni told the Enterprise that he had nothing to say regarding the pandemic’s impact on his business.
“It’s a grocery store. First come, first served,” he said.