Essential services demand essential responsibilities



A. White’s contribution to the Driftwood, “Store practices questioned” (June 24), points to some shortcomings in the way Country Grocer operates during this perilous pandemic.

One gets the sense that White was traumatized by her experience at CG, and with good reason: despite limiting the number of people allowed in the store at any one time and providing protection at check-out, management appears to have neglected other basic precautions.

Let’s start at the front door, where one or often two CG employees, presumably monitoring the flow of people in and out, appear rather oblivious to social distancing as they merrily chat away with customers on their way in, often at close quarters (more like two feet rather than the required two meters). Nor are they wearing masks to protect those entering as well as themselves. Should one of these guardians be an unsuspecting asymptomatic carrier, they might unwittingly infect hundreds of islanders in a single day.

Nor is there any justification for the situation one encounters once inside. While measures have been taken to protect cashiers from direct contact with customers, one still experiences unnervingly close encounters with employees, who continue to dart around in all directions with seemingly little regard for social distancing or for wearing masks and gloves. Apparently, as White asserts, management leaves it up to staff whether or not they choose to wear masks and gloves to protect the health of the community. The B.C. government strongly recommends mask wearing for everyone when in enclosed spaces for extended periods of time. As this measure is not mandatory, CG cannot force customers to wear masks — although they could undoubtedly remind them often of the importance and social responsibility of doing so. And they could most definitely request that staff who are in contact with customers, especially staff handling our produce and food supplies, wear masks and gloves at all times.

I raised some of these concerns with CG management back in March, urging them to take more precautionary steps during this crisis. They replied that CG lacks the personnel to ensure in-store social distancing, and further that some of their staff were recent hires, so they would review the rules with them again. They also informed me that one-way aisles are not “practical” within CG — which I find curious, as they are in place in other essential hubs both on and off island.

While this suggests that CG is taking some measures in the interest of public health, there appears to be many a slip between the cup and the lip. It has been my observation over the past two months that there has been little perceptible improvement. If anything, the situation appears to have become even more lax. While the employees may have been given gloves, as A. White points out, many of them are not using them — not even those in charge of fresh produce. While staff may have been given more instructions on social distancing, many of them are not following those instructions, routinely coming within close range of shoppers.

Let’s not mince words: the situation is serious, both globally and in Canada. With over 12.5 million cases and over 560,000 deaths worldwide as of July 10, this is the deadliest global pandemic in a century. And although Canada has fared relatively well so far, and especially B.C. — in part owing to the cautious approach taken by public health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry — this situation could easily change overnight if we let our guard down.

New research, just published, shows that “silent spreaders” — infected people who have no symptoms, or who have contact with others during the few days before symptoms appear — are a primary driver of COVID-19 spread. There is also mounting evidence that small droplets emitted by an infected individual can remain airborne for extended periods of time in enclosed spaces. It might only take one silent spreader in our midst to spark an outbreak on island. That would certainly burst our bubble — and in the worst-case scenario might result in a complete island lockdown.

Under such circumstances, caution is of the essence. One can hope that the seemingly “relaxed” attitude at CG stems from lack of deeper understanding of this emergency and of the health risk it poses to our community, rather than from other considerations. If so, hopefully CG management will now recognize that those who serve as an island hub for essential services also have essential responsibilities. If their casual approach persists, fortunately there are alternatives on the island.

The writer has served as an honorary professor in the Faculty of Medicine at Western University (London, Ont.), and as an international consultant to UN agencies and the government of Vietnam on pandemic spread and pandemic planning.

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