Fear, tension and kindness: A view of the pandemic from a Vernon grocery store manager - InfoNews

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Fear, tension and kindness: A view of the pandemic from a Vernon grocery store manager

Butcher Boys general manager Tamsen Guidi poses next to the newly installed screens March 31.
Image Credit: FACEBOOK/Butcher Boys
April 22, 2020 - 7:00 AM

Tamsen Guidi can pinpoint the moment she noticed the effect the coronavirus was having on society.

It was the early evening Thursday, March 12, and overnight it all changed. 

The following day the grocery store general manager saw her family's Vernon business, Butcher Boys Grocery Store, teeming with people from the moment it opened until it closed. More people came into the store than at Christmas. A $500 grocery bill wasn't uncommon. People were scared, and people had started to panic buy.

"It never felt like what you see in the news, people taking stuff out of other people's carts," Guidi said. "I saw a lot more moments of kindness than greediness."

As the general manager of Butcher Boys, Guidi and the rest of the supermarket staff, have been on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic, pushed to the forefront in a global situation never seen before in our lifetimes.

Guidi said the shopping came in waves. There was the "original panic buying," followed by people who weren't panicking but saw others and thought, "everyone else is panicking maybe I should be too?" A week or so later there were those late to the game: "they see empty shelves and then they panic."

On one Friday or Saturday, 1,500 extra customers entered the store. She can't remember the exact date, "it's a bit of a blur for me now," she says.

While panic buying toilet paper and hand sanitizer made the headlines, anyone who ventured into a supermarket in mid-March may have felt an uneasy feeling of stress and anxiety in the air.

"(There was) definitely a palpable tension, a little bit of palpable fear," Guidi said. "You feel it with the customers, you feel it with the staff."

The pandemic was in its infancy and there were a lot of unknowns.

"It felt really surreal especially in that first three weeks," she said. "It was almost happening in slow motion."

As someone in that environment constantly, Guidi saw it as her responsibility not to feed into the anxiousness and to reassure customers and staff alike. To ease the fear many were feeling.

In the early days of COVID-19, staff were told if they were immunocompromised or scared they were welcome to leave and a job would always be open for them. About 10 per cent of a staff of 80 left.

"Our staff being on the frontline is something we lose sleepover," she says.

Guidi speaks passionately about the store, the staff, the customers and her responsibility to be a confident, positive leader. She constantly praises the staff. Her tone is sincere and genuine, and it's very clear she's speaking from the heart and not from a corporate communications handbook.

"I focus intensely on the store and my people," she said.

And as someone who is immunocompromised herself, she also continued to work.

"It's a bit of a weird position to be in," she said. "Everyone saying... you should be pulling back, but it almost feels like it doesn't apply to me, even though of course it does, it's hard for it to feel real."

Like so many things during the pandemic, they've never happened before, making situations difficult to comprehend.

But as an immunocompromised person, how did Guidi cope with her reality emotionally?

She pauses awhile before answering.

"You mean those emotions that I bury deep down," she laughs. "(I) kind of put my emotions aside. I had an immense amount of focus in getting my Butcher Boys family through this."

As the third-generation in the family-owned business, it's very clear the grocery store means a great deal to Guidi. She kept working, putting in 10 to 12 hours days and working a 33-day stretch without a day-off. Her parents left semi-retirement and went back to working 10 hour days.

While tensions were high and some customers did snap, she insists the store experienced none of the poor behaviour that people rant about online.

"So many people express their gratitude for the work we are putting in, realizing we really are on the front line of this thing," she said. "People are just so kind."

One customer adapted the lyrics to the Mister Rogers theme song and sang it in the store, another customer spontaneously joined in. Several other customers raised $2,400 and bought gift cards for local restaurants for all the staff. Another customer offered staff members homemade masks.

"My jaw dropped, it was amazing, it put so many smiles on our staffs' faces," she said.

While standing on a marker two metres away from other shoppers, seeing the odd empty shelf, and talking to staff through plexiglass may be the norm now, just six weeks ago a trip to the supermarket wasn't like this.

While the early days of panic are over and the majority of people are grocery shopping once every week or two, with the warm weather more people are out and about and the store has noticed another recent change in people's behaviour. As the fear has subsided some people have started just heading into the store for one or two items.

"For us on the frontline, it is still very real, so the more risks that everyone else takes, that puts my people at risk," she said. "Which I take personally."

It's easy to see why.

So will the pandemic change the attitude the public has to supermarket staff in the future?

"I already feel that appreciation," she says.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Ben Bulmer or call (250) 309-5230 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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