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A Late Night Visit To A NEK Grocery Store As Hoarding Takes Hold

A shelf sparse with cleaning products.
Elodie Reed
VPR File
Grocery shelves, like these at Market 32 in Burlington, are looking sparse these days. Erica Heilman recently visited her local Price Chopper to chat with store customers and employees.

In the past couple weeks, there have been a lot of reports about stores selling out of toilet paper and working overtime to stay stocked. Erica Heilman stopped in at the Price Chopper in St. Johnsbury to see how supplies were lasting, and how shelf stockers and customers were feeling about the coronavirus.  

Driving through downtown St. Johnsbury at 11 p.m. looks pretty much the same as it did a few weeks ago — dark and quiet, except for the light coming from Dunkin’ Donuts.

But a couple miles outside of town, past all the car dealerships, the Price Chopper’s still open. I was there for cottage cheese, apples, beer, and a chicken. There weren’t many shoppers there at 11 o'clock, and most who were, were just getting off work. And most everyone I talked with wasn’t very concerned about the coronavirus.

A young painter in the produce aisle

I talked with a young guy in the produce aisle who didn’t want to use his name:

Man: “I’m in Price Chopper grocery shopping, and the coronavirus has cleared everything out. It’s been great. Just got out of work.”  

Me: “So this is not an unusual time for you to be here at Price Chopper?”  

Man: “Not really. I get out of work late.” 

Me: “What do you do?” 

Man: “I paint.”  

Me: “Where were you working today?” 

Man: “Dartmouth College. They shut down Dartmouth College for six weeks because of the virus. They want to test us tomorrow for the virus to make sure we can keep working."

Me: “So are you worried about this, or no?”  

Man: “No. Not really. It’s more like the immune systems and stuff in older people, so …”

Holly and Elaine

At least half the people I talked to who weren’t concerned about the virus also happened to have close family with respiratory problems.

This is Holly and her daughter Elaine:

Holly: “Well I hope nobody catches it.”  

Me: “It’s not weighing on you right now.”  

Holly: “Well, I have children, they’re not going to daycare. I have a 2-year-old, a 3-year-old, and a 4-year-old and I foster a set of twins, and they’re eight months. And they had upper respiratory issues when they were born, so … yup. They’re out of daycare.”  

Me: “What are you noticing is empty here?” 

Elaine:  “Diapers, diaper wipes, toilet paper, and that’s about it. Well, food. And I have a son with a lung condition. And this isn’t bothering me at all. I know how to control what’s going on with him and keep him away from people.”  

Josh, the shelf-stocker

Josh was stocking shelves in Aisle 7.  

Me: “You work here at Price Chopper?” 

Josh: “Yes.”  

Me: “Only at night?”  

Josh: “Yes. I work overnights third shift, stocking shelves. It’s terrible. I can’t keep the shelves stocked. Like I saw somebody this morning with three carts full. Over $700. I watched her … I put up a whole bunch of Pasta Roni and less than a minute after putting it up, I watched her just pull the whole thing down from the top. “

Me: “How is it changing your nights?” 

Josh: “I mean, I have to throw twice as much stuff. We don’t bother to face the store anymore.”  

Me: “What does that mean?”

Josh: “Like, you pull all this up to the edge to make it look nice. We’re not even bothering anymore.”  

Me: “Do you worry for yourself at all?” 

Josh: “Not yet. Yet, that’s the key word. I’m worried if they shut the states down like they’ve been talking about. No more interstate commerce. And I don’t know how that’s going to affect this stuff. If they’re going to be able to get it across state lines.”  

Me: “You mean food.” 

Josh: “Yeah. ‘Cause then I’ll be out of a job if they can’t get nothing here.”  

Shopping for the family

I talked with Ed in the produce aisle. He was wearing an orange hat, orange gloves, and a mask.  

“I live with my parents, and two members of the family kind of think it’s overblown, and my father and I do not at all think it’s overblown. We know exactly what’s happening and what is probably going to happen unless things change very rapidly. And my way of coping with it is gathering as much information as I can and doing as much as I can to protect my family, which is two people who are approaching 80, and someone who is pushing 50 who has diabetes. I am the one who is least at risk and that’s why I’m doing the shopping.” 

At checkout

There was only one person working checkout.  

Me: “Are you worried about your job?”  

Checkout-er: “I am very worried about my job. And I’ve got bills to pay. My parents rely on my income as well, and they all work here. I have no idea what’s going to happen.”  

Me: “Are you worried about your family?”  

Checkout-er: “My biggest concern is my animals, because there’s a lot of talk about whether or not they can get it. And I have small animals. I have a parakeet and a sugar glider, which their immune systems work different than ours. Sugar gliders, they have a high protein diet because they work very fast. So the smallest, even a cold that they get, could kill them.”  

Me: “What is a sugar glider?” 

Checkout-er: “It’s a marsupial. It’s kind of like a flying squirrel.”

There's always the farm

I forgot the chicken. On my way back to the meats, I ran into Josh and asked him one last question about the Northeast Kingdom.  

Me: “How would you characterize this part of the world? How would you describe the Kingdom, in a pinch. The Kingdom in a crisis.”  

Josh: “I don’t know how to describe it in a crisis, but before the crisis I would’ve described it like the Shire, from Lord of the Rings. ‘Cause it was pretty much, you know? It almost was like The Hobbit. And now I don’t know.” 

Me: “So when are you going to start stockpiling?”  

Josh: “I get a little extra, but I’m not worried. Of course my parents have a farm up in East Burke too so, if worse comes to worse, you can survive off the farm.” 

Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.
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