What’s it like to be an essential food worker right now?

We spoke with three restaurant and grocery store workers about the challenges and bright spots of providing an essential public service during the crisis.

Manuela Sinagra-Gonzalez works as cashier at Belotti Bottega on Piedmont Avenue. Sinagra-Gonzalez comes originally from Campania in Southern Italy, “so you can just imagine personally how I feel about all this,” she said.

Before the crisis started, she worked as a full-time server at Belotti Ristorante on College Avenue, and only occasionally as staff at the counter-service pasta shop. But as dine-in service has become a thing of memory, Manuela-Gonzalez now works 20 hours a week ringing up orders at the shop.

Like most businesses still open, Belotti has several measures in place to assure safety of staff and customers. In addition to the recommended six feet of social distancing, the store limits capacity to four customers at a time. The business require all staff to wear masks and gloves and to sanitize the ordering counter every 30 minutes. Because the checkout system is not completely touchless — customers still pay via cash and credit card — staff sanitizes touchpads and the stylus after each checkout.

It’s a decent system, but not foolproof, according to Sinagra-Gonzalez. “I don’t feel 100% safe,” she said, namely because most of Belotti’s safety measures apply only to staff, and Sinagra-Gonzalez has no way of knowing how serious customers are in maintaining their own health, especially if they aren’t wearing personal protective equipment.


It’s a contrast to Italy, the country that became the epicenter of the coronavirus before the U.S. overtook it in number of diagnosed cases. “I just spoke to my mom, and they’re actually checking if you have a fever before you go into the grocery store, and you have to wear something to cover your mouth and hands,” said Sinagra-Gonzalez.

Many East Bay residents are staying safe by avoiding high-trafficked areas and ordering more delivery and curbside pickup. But curbside service at Belotti has not picked up that much since the shelter-in-place order began. Most customers still want to walk into the store and have a face-to-face interaction.

Belotti Bottega uses blue painter’s tape with written reminders about maintaining the 6-foot social distancing protocol. Photo: Pete Rosos

Manuela-Gonzalez said some shoppers expressed frustration when Belotti first instated safety measures, like restricting occupancy and asking for people to keep at least six feet of distance from others. However, people have become more aware of the value of both practices. Sinagra-Gonzalez wishes they would be as receptive to masks and gloves. “The way people are reacting over here, they are really underestimating the problem,” she said.

Face coverings are not a substitute for frequent hand washing and social distancing, but they are helpful in limiting the spread of COVID-19 and are strong visual cues. U.S. attitudes are starting to change regarding the importance of mask-wearing. The CDC now recommends them while in public, and Los Angeles has mandated masks for both workers and customers at grocery stores (at this time, face coverings are recommended, but not required in the Bay Area). Still, not all Belotti customers take the same precautions and Sinagra-Gonzalez still sees many who enter the store with neither. “And that’s a little scary,” she said.


Personal health is public health

Adrionna Fike does not see personal health as separate from public health. Fike is one of nine worker-owners at Mandela Grocery Cooperative in West Oakland. For Fike, maintaining her own well-being — through eating enough nutritious foods, getting plenty of sleep and limiting stress — is key to keeping her business and community safe.

Fike isn’t the only co-op member to see the value in self-care; it is something that is much discussed amongst her colleagues. “We’re all encouraging one another to take our time, take it easy, understanding that stress is a contributor to inflammation and to lowering our immune system,” Fike said.

Adrionna Fike stocks the produce section with fresh turmeric at Mandela Grocery Cooperative in West Oakland. Photo: Pete Rosos
Adrionna Fike stocks the produce section with fresh turmeric at Mandela Grocery Cooperative in West Oakland. Photo: Pete Rosos

As concerned as she is for the health of the business and her neighborhood, it has also been a time of tremendous opportunity for Mandela. The cooperative has reported increases both in revenue and in the number of customers served, as residents in the immediate and neighboring communities shift their shopping habits to smaller retailers. “We’re flourishing right now,” said Fike. “We’re having the opportunity to educate.”

“We’re flourishing right now. We’re having the opportunity to educate.” — Adrionna Fike, worker-owner at Mandela Grocery Cooperative

Many of Mandela’s customers find shopping at larger grocery stores dispiriting or unsafe at present. To address those concerns, Mandela has implemented quite a number of changes. Besides gloves, masks and frequent handwashing and sanitizing of shelves and products, Mandela’s staffers position themselves at separate stations throughout the store, forming a sort of assembly line of customer service.

Upon entering the store, customers are directed from one station to the next: They’re asked about their shopping list, pointed towards the products they’re seeking, told if an item is out of stock and directed towards suitable alternatives, and then guided back towards the register and then to the door. It’s a fairly seamless chain of guiding customers along the same path, at minimum six feet of distance between each. It enables the store to serve more customers faster, and to limit the amount of time shoppers spend away from home.

Upon entering, customers are guided towards the products they’re seeking by Mandela Food Cooperative staff. Photo: Pete Rosos

“We are definitely primed to assist people,” said Fike. “Our customer service is at an all-time high so that we can help people move through and get someone else in the door.”

Fike says the store has only received positive feedback since beginning the service. “There’s a lot of relief when people come in here,” said Fike. “Things are in better order, things are far more organized,” she said. “There have only been upsides to being a worker-owner during the pandemic.”

Like most grocery stores, Mandela has reduced its hours of operation to 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and has recently decided to close Sundays as a way to give staff time to recover. But while staff have had to make do with shorter hours, not one person has been let go. All nine worker-owners and 12 employees who worked at Mandela before the crisis began still work there today. Fike credits this to the values and systems they have as a collective. “We’re fully engaged and knowledgeable owners making good use of our resources and collective decision making processes,” she said.

Though the pandemic has put several plans on indefinite hold (such as a planned kitchen expansion), some projects (such as series on nutrition sponsored by the Oakland Housing Authority) will be moved online. Mandela does not currently offer grocery delivery or curbside pick-up, but is working out a system to make both happen. And while they do occasionally run out of products like eggs and toilet paper, the cooperative maintains a diversity of supply streams so that when one runs dry, they can turn to the next. It always requires strategy, but they’re not letting it get to them.

Fike is one of nine worker-owners at Mandela Grocery Cooperative. Photo: Pete Rosos

For Fike, operating a grocery store isn’t just about a way to make money, or even a way to stay healthy. It’s an almost spiritual call to service. For that reason, she prefers to see it as a challenge, rather than as a problem. People are busier, and more stressed, but also, by her observation, more considerate.

“It doesn’t feel like a crisis,” she said. “It’s softer. It’s more compassionate.”

More business, but more financial uncertainty, too

At Community Foods Market, another West Oakland grocery store, business has also gone up even as they have reduced operating hours, and they’ve ramped up safety measures accordingly.

The floor of Community Foods is evenly marked with hash marks of tape, spaced six feet apart. Staff wear masks and gloves to work. Hand sanitizer is available for customers as soon as they walk in the door. Community Food has also begun limiting customers to no more than 10 shoppers at a time and in accordance with the latest shelter-in-place order, restricted the use of reusable bags. The store has also ordered plexiglass shields which will be installed at checkout to separate staff from customers and the store has begun scanning employee temperatures when they arrive for work.

“I’m not playing with this,” said cashier Sharon Rance from behind a mask. “When I get off work, I go home, I shower and then I stay in the house. There’s no reason for me to go out.”

Sharon Rance, a cashier at Community Foods Market in West Oakland.
Sharon Rance, a cashier at Community Foods Market in West Oakland. Photo: Cirrus Wood

For Rance, as for many workers, restrictive measures have brought financial concern. Rance has gone from working 35 hours a week to only 24, after  she was furloughed by the Oakland YMCA, where she had a second job. Her husband, who worked at Foods Co, was recently laid off, and so now, Rance is supporting both of them, as well as her 16-year-old son. She also provides housekeeping and meal preparation to her son’s father, who is diabetic and presently self-isolating. While her son receives some state assistance through his father, Rance is “most definitely the top breadwinner,” she said.

Rance is concerned for her health and the health of her family, but also about the state of her finances. Being on furlough from one job, and owing to a negative past experience filing for unemployment benefits, she’s not sure what will happen if she loses work at Community Foods. “Am I even going to be able to get unemployment?” she said.

“I’m not playing with this. When I get off work, I go home, I shower and then I stay in the house. There’s no reason for me to go out.” — Sharon Rance, cashier at Community Foods Market

So she works hard to keep her social safety net strong, even if social distancing makes it harder to visit friends and neighbors. Rance is part of a neighborhood group text that stays up to date with each other. Since she works at a grocery store, Rance is often checking what foods and products neighbors might need that she can pick up and deliver post-shift.

Community Foods has become the social center of her life. Family and friends she otherwise would not have the chance to interact with stop by for groceries and to check in with her and each other, many seeing the store for the first time.

“People come here because it’s a safe environment,” said Rance. “Every other day I’m seeing people that I know.”

Belotti Bottega, 4001-B Piedmont Ave. (at 40th Street), Oakland; 510-350-7619. Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Monday through Saturday; Mandela Grocery Cooperative, 1430 Seventh St. (at Mandela Parkway), Oakland; 510-452-1133. Hours: 9 a.m.-6 p.m., Monday through Saturday; Community Foods Market, 3105 San Pablo Ave. (at Myrtle Street), Oakland; 510-285-6985. Hours: 10 a.m.-7 p.m., daily