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Grocery Shopping in Queens: The New Normal

April 1, 2020
A line of masked shoppers outside a Queens Foodtown during the coronavirus pandemic.

In light of these historic times, we want to document some bits of life in Queens during the pandemic. The mundane experience of grocery shopping has changed for billions of people. How has it changed or you? Are you braving the elements or getting groceries delivered for the first time? Let us know in the comments.

A line of masked shoppers outside a Queens Foodtown during the coronavirus pandemic.

Foodtown in Jackson Heights, Queens.

Everything about it feels wrong.

I’m standing on the sidewalk on 37th Avenue in Jackson Heights, just around the corner from my apartment. I’ve walked this avenue, a main drag lined with businesses, a million times; I’ve led countless food tours past this corner; I’ve made thousands of visits to the Foodtown I’m in front of. But this time it’s eerily quiet, save for the sirens. This time, I’m wearing a surgical mask—given to me two weeks ago by my Malaysian hair cutter at a time when it still seemed unnecessary—and plastic gloves, and I’m waiting in line just to get in. While standing 6 feet apart from the person in front and behind me.

I thought about bailing and trying again later. But I suspected with the new limits on how many people can shop at once there would always be a line. Plus the smaller produce stores I like in the area all seemed unsafer somehow—long, narrow spaces with little ventilation in the back, where they’re not enforcing limits on shoppers (and even five shoppers feels like too many there—neighboring Elmhurst was, after all, the epicenter of the virus in hard-hit NYC). In any case, the line was moving relatively quickly, as we were all so spaced out from one another. [Note: Three weeks later, this would become an hourlong wait.]

I feel concern for the woman in front of me. Older than me, she likewise wore a mask and gloves, but she was pecking away at her phone, and at one point pulled her mask down to breathe some fresh air freely. Does she know she’s just contaminated her mask? I see a similar thing across the street, where a pair of men chat at maybe 3 feet apart. One pulls down his mask to smoke a cigarette. What are these people thinking?

As for me, I’d left my phone at home on purpose—figured I’d remove the temptation to use it while grocery shopping, currently high on the “riskiest things I could be doing” list. But we’d made it a week without coming here, and usually I’m at this store every other day picking up an ingredient or three I need. Now we were almost out of milk. It was time.

The line moved faster than I thought it would. Makes sense, since we were all standing so far from one another. Two people left the store, two were let in. After about 10 minutes I was in, and I got quickly to work on my prepared list. Now wasn’t the time to wander aimlessly.

An empty pedestrian plaza in Jackson Heights, Queens, NYC, during the pandemic.

Empty Diversity Plaza, a usually bustling pedestrian area in Jackson Heights.

The store was surprisingly quiet. I was grateful for that line outside, as it meant pretty uncrowded aisles. Also fewer voices. I noticed the usual 1980s’ soundtrack wasn’t on. I guess it’d feel weird to hum along to “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” in a face mask while very consciously trying not to touch your face or hair.

No boxes of salad greens, no bananas, no toilet paper or napkins (save for those thick dinner napkins). But pretty much everything else I wanted was there. I moved quickly, loading up as much as I could carry back home. Nearly $150 worth, including some of our essentials: produce, cereal, beans, yogurt, pasta, canned tomatoes, cheese. (I wound up buying 80 dinner napkins; we’re now cutting them in quarters to make them last longer.)

After going through self-checkout, I struggled to get the four filled canvas bags home. I dropped them inside our entryway, hollered at the kids to move out of the way. Stuck the mask in a plastic bag—I’d already thrown the gloves out—took off my shoes. Washed my hands for the first of about 25 times in this process. Brought each grocery out of each bag and over to a dedicated section of my counter, as this doctor recommends. Threw the canvas bags into a plastic bag to be laundered later. Wiped down or washed each package, washed every bit of produce, even the onions and garlic. It took nearly an hour but everything got put away. Phew.

Until next time, Foodtown. 

Eds’ note: It’s since been disputed that so much care needs to be taken to disinfect groceries, but we are still playing it safe. It is worth noting, though, that disinfecting wipes probably should not be used on every bit of food packaging, as some of it is porous and could contaminate your food. 

 

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