The Next New Normal

  | Food For Thought, GM Report

As I write this, we in Windham County have been informed that our COVID infection risk status is now “substantial.”  I know I am not alone in thinking, Wow, what happened? and How come so fast?

Needless to say, we instituted the CDC’s strong recommendation for mask-wearing in the store for both customers and staff the morning we heard the news. Of course, as in most things of this nature, the commentary has been widely varied. Some feel we should mandate and enforce as we did for months, before vaccinations had reached the 80% mark. Others chided us for “shaming” folks into wearing masks.

This is basically a no-win situation for a business. As individuals, we are all over the map on vaccinations and their relative merit in fighting the new variant(s) of the virus. But I continue to hear and read that, against the backdrop of a significant majority of our community being vaccinated, even so-called “breakthrough” infections are generally not serious. This is a great comfort, so far, and to continue this relatively positive state of affairs I choose to mask up inside our Co-op and other businesses. I also recognize that if things get any worse, i.e., our risk level becomes high, then we will regrettably be back in the situation of having difficult mask conversations with those unwilling to make that sacrifice.

Many of us have continued to cling to the idea that we could return to “normal.” It appears that we have a long road ahead of us, and we may never get back to the free-wheeling days before 2020.

UPDATE: We just learned of a vaccinated staff member who tested positive. We were relieved to know that all who were in close contact were vaccinated, and also that we had a mask mandate in place to protect our customers and ourselves in just this situation. All safety protocols have been followed.

This “new normal” may be true in the realm of employment as well. Even as we struggle to meet the needs of our open positions throughout our Co-op, we have a strong sense that the only real solution is to figure out how to work through our processes and offerings by doing them with a few less staff positions. Foodservice jobs are so understaffed, throughout the entire industry, that we are all getting used to fewer restaurant options, on fewer days of the week. Our store, though, is open seven days, and we have had to discontinue a few services a few days a week to simply keep up. (Our pizza station is currently open only on weekends, for example, though we hope to expand that soon.)

I remember a conversation with our IT Manager Erik recently when he asked me about self-checkout, and whether our store would ever go that route. At the time, I was thinking that it didn’t make a lot of sense to us, culturally or logistically, but now, I am not so sure. If we are unable to staff our customer service cashier positions, should we plan on this possibility sooner rather than later? If we are unable to get weekend positions filled in our Grocery and Bulk departments, how can we offer more items that require significant handling, such as bulk liquids?

These questions will be difficult for us to grapple with as we move into uncharted territory. The solutions are not simple, and nearly all of them have challenging consequences. We’ll keep on working on solving problems, of course, and we’ll work hard to keep you informed as we do so.

In the meantime, see you in the aisles!


By Sabine Rhyne, General Manager