Norah Martone packages an order for curbside pickup at Rosemont Market & Bakery in Portland’s West End. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Marie Beckim has been working at the Cumberland Farms store in Bath for eight years. She’s the breadwinner for her family, which includes a son in middle school and another in high school, and she puts in 40-hour weeks.

In recent days she has seen customers squabble over milk, toilet paper and baby wipes. She worries that, instead of coming together as a community, the social fabric is tearing apart.

She also worries about the health of her customers, and of her family, in the age of coronavirus. On Friday she heard that one of her regulars, an older fellow who came in multiple times a day to purchase scratch lottery tickets, tested positive for the virus and is now hospitalized.

“I see hundreds of people a day, and I’m not protected at all,” she said. “I have two kids at home, so it is really scary that I might make them sick because I have to go to work. I have no choice. I’m the sole provider.”

Beckim’s situation is one shared by many grocery clerks, convenience store cashiers and others in the retail industry who regularly deal with a public that has been advised to stay at home and practice social distancing. The hope is to curtail the spread of coronavirus so that the health care system does not become overwhelmed with patients.

Since the outbreak, Beckim, 44, said she is doing more cleaning and sanitizing at the store, following a checklist provided by the home office that she repeats every two hours using a disinfectant that includes bleach.

“We literally have to bleach anything that anybody touches,” she said. “It’s a lot, but we do it because I don’t want to get sick and I’d hate for somebody to come in and get sick from here.”

Cumberland Farms on U.S. Route 1 in Bath, where Marie Beckim works 40 hours a week. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The phone rings more, with people asking about paper products or pet food. Customers are buying entire cartons rather than one pack of cigarettes. The coffee remains fresh, and Cumby’s has kept its regular hours, but traffic has lessened.

“I think people are starting to realize this is serious,” Beckim said. “It has slowed right down.”

A few miles south at Waldo’s General Store in Falmouth, Cindy Little said the deli area of the store has closed, but gas and convenience items are available. She wears gloves, as has always been the case when handling food items.

“I feel OK about coming to work,” said Little, who celebrated her 60th birthday Friday. “I’m not saying I’m not scared, but we’ve been protecting ourselves.”

In the United States, more than 3.5 million workers are considered cashiers. According to an analysis conducted in the past week by both The New York Times and Politico, cashiers are in the 75th percentile of risk based on physical proximity to others and the 28th percentile based on disease exposure. Further, a cashier’s annual average income of about $22,400, often coupled with limited or no sick leave, make them less likely to be able to afford to take several days off from work, even if they are sick.

Minnesota, Vermont and Michigan have recently reclassified grocery store workers as essential emergency workers, affording some benefits, in particular child care, similar to those offered health care providers and first responders.

Operations at the Rosemont Market & Bakery in Portland’s West End changed quickly last week. On Tuesday there was a limit of five customers inside the store at a time. By Wednesday only curbside pickup was allowed, with employees filling orders taken over the phone or online and handing off the groceries outside the shop.

“The transition was a little weird, but we pretty much have it down to a science now,” said Luke Smith, 27, the store’s assistant manager. “I don’t know if it’s just the West End or Portland in general, but people have a pretty good sense of community over here.”

Luke Smith packages an order for curbside pickup at Rosemont Market & Bakery in Portland’s West End. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Smith’s wife has a compromised immune system, so he was particularly attuned to precautions involving the novel coronavirus. Cleaning, sanitizing and hand-washing all became even higher priorities than normal.

On Sunday at the large Market Basket in Biddeford, 16-year-olds Sarah Shaw of Sanford and Avery Cadorette of Biddeford were at the store’s entrance cleaning the handrails before switching to checking out customers. Shaw said she was “not that worried” about her own health but has started wearing gloves while working.

Inside the spacious store, the crowd of customers was slightly smaller than on an average Sunday, said a clerk in the meat department. He was stacking chicken breasts below a sign that told customers only two packages of poultry could be purchased per transaction. Similar signs were posted around the store. While the dairy and produce areas were well and diversely stocked, the supply of common items liked pasta, ground turkey, frozen vegetables, and Tylenol ranged from skimpy to sold out.

Cadorette said the most difficult thing for her is when she has to enforce the purchase limits, noting it’s hard to tell customers they can’t buy a fifth can of soup or a third small-sized container of liquid hand soap.

Oakley Garlow, 28, of Biddeford has worked at the Biddeford Market Basket since it opened in 2013 and is now a front-end manager.

“Every day we’re cleaning constantly and making sure we have the disinfectant,” Garlow said. “We take measures. We have gloves for people. We practice that. And companywide we do not have any cases.”

Customers at the store were subdued and purposeful on Sunday. Garlow said he believes most understand that not every item will be available.

“We’re here to serve for you,” Garlow said. “We’re doing the best that we can do. Once those trucks get in, we’re getting the product right out.”

Meanwhile in Wells, Abby Hanson, 19, is back home because her first-year classes at Central Maine Community College have transitioned to online. An education major who hopes to one day teach English in high school, she works as a cashier at the local Super IGA Food Market and is constantly spritzing her hands with sanitizer.

“I frequently get people who are afraid to touch surfaces, especially the (credit) card machine and the belt where people put their items down,” she said. “I probably sanitize it every five minutes.”

She said she tries to take precautions herself, and even finds herself retreating to her boss’s office if she feels a sneeze coming on.

“I am young, so I’m not too worried about it,” she said. “But I keep up with the news.”

Luke Smith delivers an order to Jonathan Rue and Kiana Vakil-Gialani of Portland at Rosemont Market & Bakery in Portland’s West End. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

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