I’m not a doctor (not that anyone thought I was!), so what follows are the ramblings of an amateur. Nevertheless, I hope you’ll indulge me in a quick exercise.
Suppose for a moment that you were forced to be in a small room, say 10 x 10 feet, with someone who had tested positive for COVID-19. You have no choice in this, but you do have some important options to consider before the exercise begins.
First, you could choose whether or not the person has symptoms. The symptomatic person would be coughing and have a fever, shortness of breath and loss of taste and smell. The asymptomatic person would be, well, asymptomatic.
Next, you could choose where the two of you would sit. You could either sit right next to this person in the middle of the room, or the two of you could spread out as far as possible into opposite corners of the room.
After that, you can choose whether or not the two of you would wear masks. They could be simple cloth masks, covering the mouth and nose, or no masks — your choice.
Finally, after 15 minutes of being in this room together, the doors would open and you could choose to leave. Or you could choose to stay longer.
What would you do?
I know, it’s a silly exercise. Everyone — everyone! — would choose the asymptomatic person. Everyone would choose to sit as far apart as possible, with masks on the whole time. And the minute those doors opened, everyone would immediately choose to get up and leave.
It’s common sense, with no medical degree required, and it’s why I have a pretty short fuse when I’m confronted with people who refuse to wear masks when they come into the Co-op. Actually, I should take this opportunity to apologize to any of you who have witnessed me lose my cool as I’ve dressed down antimaskers. I always feel bad after doing so. Stressful times are no excuse for unprofessional behavior.
The mitigation efforts for COVID-19 are really no different from the mitigation efforts we’d employ when dealing with any communicable illness. The tricky part with COVID is that so many people appear to be carriers of the virus without showing symptoms. And this represents the dilemma for places like the Co-op.
Every day, roughly 2,500 people come through the doors of the Co-op’s three w. These days most people are shopping only once or twice a week, so over the course of a week, we’re seeing between 17,000 and 18,000 different people.
Given what we know, it’s impossible to believe that none of these people are asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19. (Hopefully those with symptoms are staying home!) We can only conclude that every week, and probably every day, people with COVID-19 are coming in and out of our stores.
So every day, employees of the Co-op have to go through the little exercise I outlined above. We have to assume that some of the people we’re coming in contact with are positive, asymptomatic cases. We just don’t know which ones.
Given this reality, early on we considered closing the Co-op to customers, switching to an exclusive home delivery/curbside pickup model. I trust that most people would agree that this option would have been impractical and unsustainable for anything beyond a few weeks.
Have we been successful? Ask me when the pandemic is over; too much is unpredictable with this virus. New strains keep popping up — the UK strain, the South African strain, the Brazilian strain. (I’m waiting for them to discover the Philadelphia strain: That will scare the hell out of everybody!)
But I do know that workplaces that don’t take the virus seriously can become hotspots. Poultry processing facilities were early examples of this, and the White House of our former president will someday make an interesting case study. Yet even workplaces that do take the virus seriously can find themselves with outbreaks on their hands, despite their best efforts.
So far, the Co-op’s overall positivity rate — simply the number of positive cases among staff, divided by the number of people who work here — is 3.27%. Pennsylvania’s statewide positivity rate is 6.32%. Of course, I have no doubt that some Co-op employees, perhaps a large number of us, had COVID-19 and never knew it.
As we crest over winter’s midpoint, spring is visible in the near distance — and with it the promise of warmer and better days. Already about 30 million Americans have been vaccinated; by the spring equinox, that number will have more than doubled.
We’re hopeful that by then, many Co-op employees will be counted among the vaccinated. Some already have been vaccinated. And we can all look forward to that day in the more distant future when those masks can come off for good, and we can smile and laugh together and hug each other in the aisles of our stores.
But only if we continue to use common sense.
See you around the Co-op.