Challenging times can help us realize the importance of what we still have left. While most businesses are now closed or having employees work from home, essential services continue to operate according to updated COVID-19 precautionary measures.
Certain restaurants are offering take-out and delivered meals, auto mechanics are open for scheduled drop-offs, and laundromats and hardware stores remain open. The Quebec government recently also allowed mechanics, miners, landscapers, garden centres and home builders to return to work, provided they can respect physical distancing.
However, perhaps more than any other business, grocery stores are on the front lines of this pandemic. The Cree Health Board has provided special recommendations for adopting good food-safety and hygiene practices and even visited several stores.
“The Cree Health Board was there to help us and someone from the band came to check how we’re doing,” said Sandra Happyjack, manager of Waswanipi Grocery. “We had questions for them. The first time was overwhelming – everyone was trying to come in and buy everything. People were scared.”
Although customer stockpiling of supplies like toilet paper has somewhat abated since the initial panic subsided, stores have been forced to alter their inventory management and often enforce limits on popular goods.
“We have limited toilet paper and paper towel,” Happyjack told the Nation. “We have a limit to buy from our supplier and then we limit our clients to buy two per family. Even the bread is limited. When hand sanitizer comes in, we tell them one per family. We have people coming in and placing orders – like pork chops by cases.”
Adapting to changing consumption patterns has been challenging for both suppliers and grocers, who typically operate under a “just-in-time” food system to minimize costly inventory oversupplies. Temporary shortages are inevitable as supply chains shift away from wholesale orders to cafeterias and other away-from-home clients.
“Sometimes we have to almost triple the order,” said Happyjack. “The main things that are really missing are the baby formulas, diapers and spaghetti sauce. Usually we have five or six [missing] things from our supplier but now it’s like a page and a half. We have a list that says shortage of stock or it’s blocked for chain grocery stores.”
While most stores contacted by the Nation couldn’t be reached to confirm this trend, the Meechum l’Inter Marché in Mistissini reported no significant complaints regarding deliveries. With people staying in town more than usual, the store has overcome the first rush and adjusted its orders and staffing levels accordingly.
“Everything’s back to normal now,” said Meechum manager Steve Rombotis. “Procedures are in place to protect our customers and employees. We put plexiglass in to protect our cashiers. We have someone at the door to ensure people are using hand sanitizers when they come in. We spray our carts with disinfectants every 15 minutes.”
Customers are advised to plan their shopping beforehand to spend less time in the store, not shop when feeling sick, touch only what you take, clean reusable bags and to use tap credit/debit cards when possible. When bringing groceries home, there’s no reason to do more than wash your hands well.
Stores are limiting admittance to encourage physical distancing and allow only one person per shopping cart, and ask that children be left at home. Most are reserving early hours for Elders – Waswanipi Grocery also set aside afternoons from 2 to 4 pm for Elders and others with fragile health.
“We’ve had early mornings from 8 to 9 for Elders,” Rombotis said. “There’s not that many people who use it. We thought that would be perfect hours because the store is clean from the night before.”
Eastmain Northern Store is making home deliveries for Elders and others at risk. That community has also implemented a food-subsidy program, providing a 25% discount on eligible purchases to help offset costs during these unprecedented times.
On April 10, the Eastmain Local Cree Trappers’ Association announced it will be allocating some funds from Niskamoon’s Emergency Assistance Fund for Cree Land Users towards gift cards for community members. Families will be given gift cards and coupons worth $500, single parents $300, and singles $200 – redeemable for food only.
In other news around the territory, Kuujjuaraapik Co-op is providing an additional 10% discount on food items to the end of April and Chisasibi’s Cree Mart opened an “express” service where clerks will bring five items or less to customers outside the store. Although Ouje-Bougoumou has no grocery store, its gas station expanded its food supply earlier this month – a particularly vital emergency service with non-essential travel now restricted between communities.
Although Chisasibi’s Ouwah Store is not an essential business, it began practicing distancing measures and transitioning to an online presence before such steps were enforced. They now rely on Facebook for orders and Canada Post for receiving and shipping goods. Local customers can pick up orders outside after stating their name in a walkie-talkie at the door.
“These are times that no one has ever lived,” said Ouwah co-manager Michel Goyette. “But in these situations, there are opportunities. Eventually we can come back to new norms and set new expectations. It is not time to abandon ship – it’s time to take the commands and find new ways to accomplish what we used to.”
These ways include exploring e-commerce platforms and inventory management software. Although many stores have been reducing operating hours, some question the Quebec government’s decision to close all businesses on Sundays.
“We closed last Sunday when they said grocery stores should close,” said Happyjack. “I know Montreal or Ottawa have other stores, but we have only the gas station, the corner store and the grocery store. I think when we close Sundays, then on Monday we have more people coming in. Maybe it’s a good thing we stay open.”
Happyjack credited her staff for disinfecting the entire store the previous weekend. Grocery stores and their customers throughout Eeyou Istchee have expressed gratitude to workers for gracefully maintaining operations. Rombotis even likened them to superheroes.
“There have been some who were more reluctant to work, and we gave them space to stop as they wished,” Rombotis said. “Others have been more than willing to adapt as much as possible. They’re working out great and we’re very appreciative. We give them the incentive that they deserve in salary as well.”