Rebuilding America: Our series dives into our community's efforts to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
NEWTON — The grocery store is one space still thriving and considered an essential destination during the chaos of the constantly changing landscape of a COVID-19 world.
As of May 18, the Harvey County Health Department had recorded 15 positive cases of the coronavirus in the county.
In Newton, local stores are adapting in different ways to remain competitive in the grocery business and keep their doors open. Unlike large chains required to follow corporate policy, such as Dillons Food Stores, privately owned stores hold some power to decide which changes to employ in their businesses.
Kent and Kim Dirks own Meridian Grocery, 101 N. Meridian Road, which opened in 2006 and has 25 employees. Store hours are 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and thus far no adjustments to hours have been needed.
"We've hung in there and now things are looking up a little," said floor supervisor Tina McFarlane.
Large protective shields have been installed at the two registers to protect both cashiers and customers, but so far, social distancing tape or markers have not been needed.
"Every once in a while we have to ask someone to please back up a little bit, but mostly people are respectful of each other," McFarlane said. High-touch areas, such as cart handles, conveyor belts at the register, door handles, freezer doors and surfaces, are regularly sanitized. Sanitizer is also available for customers.
McFarlane said that although at times demand was difficult to meet, staff hustled to keep shelves stocked with what inventory was available from vendors. Yeast has been difficult to keep in stock, along with hamburger meat.
The Dirkses provided all employees with face masks but left the decision of whether to wear them up to them individually. If the store starts getting busy, most employees will put them on.
McFarlane chooses not to wear one most of the time, saying it's more difficult to communicate with customers.
"We've had a lot of people say that being a small store, they're not as worried," she said. "Some people have chosen to take a leave of absence because of the pandemic back in March. Until they feel safe, there's no pressure. They'll still have a job."
Although Meridian is known as a discount store for damaged goods and surplus from other stores, it still carries its own fresh goods, too, such as produce, cinnamon rolls and freshly baked bread.
Baked goods and bulk foods have helped keep business steady, and three weeks ago the restriction on toilet paper was removed as demand has slowed.
Next to the first register is a large display of sanitizer in many different sizes, from large jugs to regular-sized spray bottles and smaller ones that would fit in a bag.
McFarlane said the pandemic has led to some positive changes within the store.
"People are coming together as a community," she said. "I've noticed in this time they're paying forward money toward the next person in line — $5 or an extra charge."
As for keeping limits on certain products that are in high demand, McFarlane said, "I pray that we won't have to but I hope people remember the struggle and learn from it. A lot of people have been coming here because they don't want to go to the big stores."
At Prairy Market & Deli, 601 N. Main St. in Newton, customers experience the store differently upon walking in and finding a wooden stand with small, medium and large gloves available; blue tape on the floor; and signs indicating 6 feet markers as they shop.
Prairy opened in 2000, and Aaron Gaeddert joined the business as owner in 2014.
The first half of the store is operating, but the back half has been shut down, including the second register and deli area/bakery. Shoppers’ traffic has been re-routed to avoid those areas. Prepared meals in the fridge units are ready for curbside orders.
Other downtown retailers were shut down for over a month, Gaeddert said.
"We reduced hours (from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. to 10 a.m. to 6 p.m, Monday through Saturday) due to the change in traffic," he said.
In two weeks the store has sold over 300 hand-sewn cloth masks made by neighboring business owner Sukulhle Moyo, of Moyo Clothes, according to Gaeddert. A display is near the register and features two different types with bright patterns: some that tie behind the head and neck, and others with ear loops. Store employees wear them, and every day they are washed in hot water and switched out with fresh ones to alternate and keep them clean.
Gaeddert said he has over 20 employees and "one of the reasons I got into the business is that everyone has to eat and that's not ever going to change. Most of what we carry is in the natural food category; non-GMO, gluten-free, dairy-free. We're a specialty food store," which includes bulk foods like grains, beans, and coffee.
To cut down on contact, now only staff are allowed to handle and measure out portions to be sold. Shoppers previously did that themselves.
"We've had a number of employees who have chosen to stay home either because of the virus or because of kids being home," Gaeddert said, and he supports their requests.
He also offers flexible hours to employees who work on the floor, allowing them to shift their hours to 6 a.m. to 9 a.m., as they are exposed to the public while office employees are not. Deli employees have been given other duties to keep them working as many hours as possible.
"Our goal is to keep everyone employed for as much of a full-time schedule as possible," Gaeddert said.
Besides the grocery business, an upper floor is a mezzanine venue usually rented out for events and in-store catering, and both aspects of the business have needed to be canceled during the pandemic until further notice.
However, the cookie business, Prairy Bites, is back in production as of May 14 after an initial shutdown.
New features Gaeddert has added include personal shoppers for customers who prefer not to come inside the store. They can call with a list and an employee will collect those items, tender the sale, and bring them out for curbside pickup. It's a popular option and keeps business steady.
He also created a website, www.market.prairy.com, to facilitate curbside pickup orders.
"We're making decisions on behalf of not only our employees but our customers as well," Gaeddert said. "It's a lower number of shoppers and it's going to continue to be a struggle, but we're hopeful and happy to be in this community and play a vital role."
It's not only stores that are changing to accommodate shoppers, K-State Research and Extension horticulture agent Scott Eckert said, on behalf of the Harvey County Farmers Market.
The farmers market will be open 8 a.m. to noon at 320 N. Main St. every Saturday into likely October. He estimates that in mid to late June it will open on Tuesdays as well.
Although it will start out with a smaller number of vendors, Eckert expects between 15-20 at its peak this season. At this time there is no limit on the number of patrons allowed, but several changes have been made, and he said the market is following COVID-19 guidelines recommended by the Harvey County Health Department. Masks are not required for shoppers but are encouraged, and hand-washing stations will be set up with both water and hand sanitizer.
"Shopping may take longer because of the precautions we're taking. Be patient with your turn and the vendors," Eckert said. "We'd appreciate one person at a vendor unless it's a couple. It's just like when you're going to the grocery store."
Each vendor booth will be placed a car width from its neighboring booth, and there will be no entertainment this year as hanging around in groups is discouraged once shopping is completed.
Primarily, vendors will all be wearing masks and social distancing will be practiced. He asked that all shoppers keep 6 feet from the displays and wait. And only vendors may handle produce and goods until the purchase is made.
"It may be a little different but we hope people will enjoy the farmers market. I hope things normalize by next summer. We're all just trying to figure this out," Eckert said.