Just a few minutes before 3 p.m. on Wednesday, Yesenia Alvarado arrived for her shift as manager of the Morton Williams Supermarket at the corner of Third Avenue and 63rd Street in Manhattan.
She was cornered nearly immediately by staffers and customers, all of them with questions: “Do you have hand sanitizer?”
“Is there toilet paper on the shelves right now?” Have you looked, is it there, now?
“Can I get a price check on pasta?”
And then, there were all the questions from me, a reporter standing there waiting to talk to her for a New York Times business story about the new challenges for supermarkets around the country. The gist of that piece is that stockers, managers, cashiers, and store owners are now “essential workers” at the front lines of the emergency during the COVID-19 crisis, sharing many of the same risks as cops, nurses, sanitation workers, and bus drivers, often with less guidance.
But how was Yesenia holding up? That’s what I really wanted to know. Wasn’t she scared… scared about all kinds of things? I know I would be. I knew that I was, and I only saw three people a day, not 300.
“It’s been crazy; it’s been the busiest I’ve ever seen,” Alvarado said of the flood of grocery shoppers navigating changing New York City rules for combating the spread of COVID-19. “But we have order; we have structure,” said Alvarado, who is 37 and commutes to work from the Bronx.
She smiled, listing for me all the new daily routines of sanitizing, cleaning, constant restocking, and keeping every register open every day all day long. There was also checking in to make sure everyone is healthy, everyone is washing their hands, everyone is washing conveyor belts and carts, and everyone is changing gloves on a frequent basis.
“I’m not worried,” she told me, putting a hand on her hip like the boss that she is. “First of all, I’m a mom — of three boys — I know chaos. If I don’t panic, everything is good.”
That Manhattan supermarket was my first stop of many that day. I visited neighborhood supermarkets in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens. I…