Wednesday, April 8: Essentials

This morning, for almost the first time since CNY officially “had a problem” with coronavirus and everything went sideways, I woke up feeling depressed. Not because of the weather (which, blessedly, may be rotten for the next few days, keeping people inside), but because I suddenly started wondering what was going on at the local Wegmans. My only eyes on the outside world now — aside from very occasional trips to a relative’s apartment to deliver her groceries coming by delivery to my place — come from imagination.

(I also have a link to Onondaga County’s 911 call logger, which I am tempted to click on every time I hear sirens. What’s happening? What’s on fire now? etc. But so many of the logged events seem to merely be “Suspicious.” I can relate.)

I haven’t been to Wegmans for almost three weeks. I imagine shelves still mostly empty, social-distancing tape marks on the floor, nervous shoppers trying to avoid each other (“Oh! I need to look at that very important nose hair trimmer in the next aisle, if you’ll excuse me”), and cashiers behind Plexiglas, trying not be scared. My mood is also fueled by reading about Wegmans’ corporate reaction to the pandemic and employee safety, which apparently hasn’t been really what one would hope from a company that proudly says “Employees come first, customers come second.”

It’s permitted, not recommended, and certainly not promoted. That’s essentially the Wegmans stance on employees wearing face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic. On Thursday, the company dropped a ban forbidding workers from wearing masks on the job. Internally, there has been a deafening silence in the days since. I can’t speak for all employees, but I have not received an email about the new policy. Nor is there a posting about the change on employee bulletin areas in the breakroom or next to timeclocks at my store.

It’s really not good.

As the proprietor of the blog Wegmaniacal rightly says, Wegmans isn’t just a grocery store, it’s a key part of the Central and Western New York religion. And they’re not going out of business. But just in case we thought we were immune from the creeping sense of disappointment in our country that other people are experiencing across the U.S. (“we’re far away from and better than all that”), this news about Wegmans is going to disappoint a lot of people here who, all in all, have lost a lot of things to believe in over the past decades. We thought they were… better than that.

At the same time, I can’t stop thinking about the Regional Market. And the paradise of market stands all along Ridge Road. And those Red Norlands I used to grow next to the garage. Maybe I won’t go to Wegmans so much as I used to. Or maybe things will go back to normal. But my twin obsessions lately have to do mainly with county and regional government, and food. Kind of surprised about the “food” bit. (It’s not like I’m going hungry; but I’ve heard that some local med students — essentials-in-training — are going hungry and even living in their cars.)

I once had a thought that all civilization would be so much better ruled if disabled people were the only ones allowed to become president. Maybe every government, in addition to the usual types who get elected, need to have a Council of Essentials to legally have their say. We had this form of democracy here in the old days — the Haudenosaunee form of government, where there were chiefs, but also Essentials (the women, who raised the children and planted the crops) who had final say over serious matters and could remove a bad chief.

At least, companies and corporations could stand to have such councils. I believe we used to call them unions. Wegmans doesn’t like unions. Most of us thought this was just a harmless detail and not really relevant because Wegmans was just so nice to its employees that it didn’t really matter. But much like you can’t conceal the sound of a growling stomach, it’s possible that we can’t ignore this noise either.

(Late update: After intense criticism, Wegmans announces they have secured some masks for their employees.)