A day in the life of a Dublin supermarket during Covid-19
Flour sales are up 300%, soap 700%. The warehouse is ‘stuffed’, and alcohol is ‘a priority’
Adrian O’Sullivan, the manager of Tesco in Rush, Co Dublin. Photograph: Alan Betson
Adrian O’Sullivan, manager of Tesco in Rush, Co Dublin, knows his queue of customers is building if he can see it outside the window of the fire exit at the back of the shop.
Everything has changed here in the past few weeks. There is signage everywhere reminding people to keep a distance. There are large bright stickers on the floor showing people where to stand when queueing. The checkouts have been fitted with Perspex screens.
The store has introduced a night shift so the work of shelf-stacking can be done when there are no customers. There are special shopping times for older people and for healthcare workers.
Only 100 customers are allowed in the store at any one time, though O’Sullivan prefers it to be even lower.
There is a station with hand sanitiser for customers at the entrance. Nearby a young man, James Murphy, repeatedly cleans the basket handles. “People keep thanking me,” he says. “I say ‘someone’s got to do it’.”
O’Sullivan takes me through the store rooms. Across Tesco sales of eggs are up 60 per cent. Sale of flour is up 300 per cent. Sale of soap is up 700 per cent.
We pass racks of alcohol. Are people buying more drink?
“I suppose with the pubs closed naturally enough they’re going to buy more for their homes.”
In the employee canteen chairs have been removed and people are sitting two metres apart. “It’s sad,” says Sinéad Flanagan. “We can’t tell each other secrets anymore. We can’t whisper.”
How is work?
“It’s calm now,” she says. “We were under an awful lot of stress in the first week. Nobody knew what was happening with everything, and everyone was panicking in general. The staff and customers. When it was announced [restrictions] on that Thursday we were inundated. It was crazy.”
What were people buying?
“Pasta,” says John Farrell (he later tells me he has a new baby he frets about bringing the virus to). “Non-perishable stuff, convenience food.”
It was difficult. “A lot of us got upset because it was so busy and we didn’t know what to expect,” says Flanagan. “It’s much calmer now. In general the older people are the ones we’d be more concerned about. We all have older parents we’re worried about.”
How are customers reacting?
“If anything people are nicer. There’s nobody in a hurry to go anywhere. There’s just work and there’s home… Nobody is rushing anywhere anymore. Material things don’t matter anymore. Being able to give your mother a hug, that’s the type of thing that matters now.”
I go to the store entrance where Debbie Rennicks is trying to solve an issue with the hand sanitisers. One of the dispensers isn’t working, while the other “is flowing like a tap”. She eventually solves the problem by taking the nozzle from one and putting it on the other.
Rennicks’s normal job is to monitor stock levels “They dropped drastically when the first announcement was made…They’re back up there now.”
What are the hardest items to keep in stock? “Flour. Everyone is baking. And hand sanitiser and soap are literally in and out.”
Does the virus worry her?
“Even though you’re meeting customers and smiling it’s always at the back of your mind. And you can feel the anxiety off customers as well…Everyone here has families and they don’t know if they’re bringing something home with them.”
What will she do when the lockdown is lifted? “I’ll go have a cup of tea with my mam.”
An orderly queue is now winding its way around the building. Everyone is two metres apart, obedient and polite. When an older woman asks if it’s okay to skip the queue to use the toilet, nobody objects. When she comes back out to rejoin, everyone insists she go in ahead of them.
Stay-at-home mother Denise Worthington has done her big shop already, “but the kids go through so much milk. I think people ran out to the shops initially thinking they would be closed the next day. It was like the snow all over again. But it’s calmed down now. No one is giving out or trying to skip the queue.
“I’m still getting the same shop to be honest…I do buy more of some things for fear that they’re not going to be there. Flour at the moment is almost non-existent in Rush.”
Why is flour so popular?
“All the kids want to bake…I’m usually not a baker at all but I’m trying to be domesticated.”
Is there anything else people are prioritising? She laughs. “Alcohol. I think every parent in Rush dashed for the alcohol aisle when they learned the schools were closed.”
Dennis Ryan feels the shopping experience has been improved.
“Once you get inside it’s very nice. It feels safer but also a bit less hectic. People are generally a little bit kinder as well. I did see a lot of panic-buying the first week, but you have to remember that some people are also buying for elderly people.”
Ryan usually works in the restaurant supply business, and is now working from home where business is down to “a trickle”. Consequently he’s doing most of the shopping for the household. How does he find it all?
“It’s a bit strange, a bit scary. I have a little bit of a heart condition, and I’m aware that this wouldn’t be good if it got into my chest.”
Anne Carton (64) has been particularly discommoded by the shutdown. Seven weeks ago there was a fire in her house caused by a some building work next door. She and her daughter could return only after it had been “decontaminated”, and now they have just two mattresses and some chairs. Her new furniture is ready for delivery but it can’t be delivered until after the lockdown.
“We had painters around for one day but then the guards told them they couldn’t come back because it wasn’t urgent.”
In the first week of the crisis they were temporarily living with her other daughter and her new baby, and she admits they did a little panic-buying then. “Just for the baby. Just nappies. But sure, we’re nearly used to it now. I don’t mind the queueing. You have to do what’s best for everybody.”
Tesco “price integrity leader” Barbara Weldon, a blow-in from Donabate (“I’ve only lived in Rush for 27-years”), comes out to take stock of the queue. “It’s a nice community,” she says. “They understand that we’re putting our lives at risk, and they want us to be okay.”
Barbara thinks the stockpiling rumours come from a handful of Facebook posts. Most people were just buying a little more than normal.
“And sometimes people are shopping for more than one person. I met someone just there and said, ‘didn’t I see you in this morning?’ They said, ‘yeah, I’m back to do the shop for the neighbours.’ You do notice more men doing the shopping. You see them looking at lists and you help them find things.”
Barbara has a husband and 21-year-old twins at home. The person she misses seeing most is her mother. And she misses hugs.
“I’m a hugger. If anyone is upset, I’d be the first to wrap my arms around them. I have to stop myself now. Here’s me…” She does an impression of herself resisting the urge to hug.
She says everyone is being very careful. “Our uniforms are going to be a thread by the end because they’re into the washing machine so much.”
Inside the shop Gustavo Zamudio from Argentina is working a checkout with a mask on his face. He continually wipes his surroundings as he works. When he passes me a pen to write down his name (I temporarily misplace my own) he wipes it, and when I hand it back he wipes it again. He is being particularly careful.
“My wife needs a vaccination every two weeks for scoliosis and arthritis. Any virus and she would get very, very sick.”
He shows me a letter from her doctor. “Every time I move, I think, ‘Have I cleaned that?’ But I also try to cheer up people if they look worried. That’s my job. There’s too much worry.”
Maureen McGettrick at the customer service desk has just made an announcement, and is now cleaning the microphone. She makes the announcements whenever shoppers cluster together. “In the interest of our safety and customer safety, the HSE have asked us to engage in social distancing…”
She laughs. “Move along, basically… If people stop for a chat the place gets a little tense.”
She has reasons to be nervous. “My husband would have an underlying problem so I can’t get him sick. My son is very worried. He’s 16. He goes, ‘what would I do if I didn’t have you here, dad’?”
She felt a little overwhelmed in the early days of the lockdown, “but people in Rush are very supportive of us and very patient. The odd time someone gets upset, but often I think it’s because they might have no one to go home to. You have to be aware of that.”
Maria Jackson passes by with a trolley full of pet bedding. “I’m trying to rear a leveret – a baby hare. One of my cats brought it in from the fields. I had the wrong bedding for him and I don’t want a psychotic hare on my hands.”
She usually works in a veterinary clinic. “But that’s closed now, and I miss it. I live alone, and being stuck at home is hard. My neighbour is very good… And I’m lucky I have a nice little garden I can go to. But it’s very disorientating. Sometimes I have to think, ‘what day is it?’ So I’m trying to get a bit of structure back.”
With the leveret? She laughs. “With the leveret.”
The queue is even longer when I go back outside. A number of people are queueing with adult children. Maureen is with her daughter Anne. “I’m the only one of the family staying at home. Three of them are on the front line. Anne is nursing in Drogheda hospital.”
What’s that like?
“It’s stressful,” says Anne.
“She’s a fourth-year nursing student so she’s getting the rough end of everything at €10 an hour,” says Maureen.
How are people in the hospital coping?
“Not well. [Student nurses] are being given more responsibility than we would usually have… And the supports aren’t really in place.”
Does she mean the lack of protective clothing? “Yeah, and the stress of it all.” She doesn’t feel right complaining. “Everyone is experiencing the same thing. I’m not any different from anyone else.”
“But she’s terrified,” says Maureen.
I mention a report suggesting that Ireland might be hitting the peak.
“Oh no,” says Anne. “We haven’t hit it yet. They’re waiting so long for tests to come back there’s going to be a rise in numbers when they do come back.”
Maureen says: “I’m worried sick because they’re not being given the protection they need. They’re not being looked after properly. They’re dealing with people they think might have it but they’re not sure.
“She’s coming home every day worried sick…How she’s going to avoid it, I just don’t know. But I’m very proud of her.”
Thomas Tyrrell, a school caretaker, is queueing with his son Adam, who also works for Tesco. Adam is stuck at home with his parents and two adult brothers. “So, I have him doing a bit of gardening,” says Thomas.
“It’s his garden!” says Adam, with a sigh. “I do all the work.”
“I supervise,” says Thomas and he chuckles. “He might as well be doing something. I’m putting a roof over his head.”
Thomas has to be careful because he has a heart condition. His daughter, who lives nearby with three grandchildren, is a nurse and recently tested positive for the virus.
“Everyone in the ward had it but her,” says Thomas. “She tested negative in the first test, but then a few weeks later she had a sore throat and headaches, and they did the test again and she had it. She’s fine now. But it’s hard not seeing the grandkids.”
What has Adam’s experience been at Tesco during the crisis?
“The first week they were all panic-buying. Tinned food, pasta, rice. But I work in the warehouse, and it’s stuffed. There’s years’ worth of food in it.”