The front line of the fight against the rapid spread of coronavirus is held by heroes including nurses, first responders and others employed in the vital services that keep the world turning.
Often overlooked is another band of heroes — cashiers, clerks and stock people at grocery stores and gas stations.
These front line soldiers in the war against the virus are at higher risk of being exposed to infection because of frequent contact with the public, including people from across the United States who travel along Interstate 55.
McComb Market cashier Gabriele Isaac of McComb comes from a family of warriors on the front line — her mother is an R.N. treating ill people at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson.
“I’m a little bit nervous,” Isaac said. “But we’ve been taking extra precautions.”
She said cashiers come in early in the morning and stay late at night in order to deep-clean the store — an effort she hopes will help keep her co-workers and customers healthy.
“We do worry,” she said. “But we’re washing our hands.”
The store has seen a steady increase in business over the past several weeks, with people panic-buying everything from toilet paper to toothpaste.
“People are buying extra everything,” she said.
She said the threat of infection looms heavy upon her family, because both she and her mother are exposed to constant contact with people in the public.
“It’s crazy,” she said. “It’s very stressful. You try to be extra careful but you really don’t know.”
McComb Market assistant manager John Hillyard said an increase in business because of the coronavirus, which he expects to last for at least a couple of weeks, prompted him to expand hiring.
Hillyard said he isn’t too worried about the virus and is more concerned with providing for the needs of his customers.
“I’m not nervous,” he said. “This is my element.”
Stocker Josh Riggs of Brookhaven started working at McComb Market earlier this week. He was hired to help the store handle a surge in online ordering that’s proven wildly popular since stringent infection prevention measures cropped up across every industry imaginable.
He uses an app on his cell phone to track online orders, then gathers all the items purchased and prepares a package for pickup. But some merchandise is in high demand, like bread and toilet paper. If an item is out of stock, he attempts to swap it for a similar item if possible.
The service has been so popular that orders are already backed up for three or four days. Riggs fulfilled orders placed Monday on Wednesday morning. The store can fulfill up to 32 online orders each day.
Wednesday was the first day since Riggs has worked at McComb Market that he’s seen bread available for purchase. Bread shelves were nearly empty within just a few hours of being restocked.
Riggs said he is taking the virus threat seriously. He’s doing his best to wear gloves while at work — a precaution not ordinarily taken — and to practice all Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization guidelines such as social distancing.
“I do think about it, but I also keep up with all of the health guidelines,” he said. “You’ve got to be careful.”
David Greer, the manager of B-Kwik food mart on Veterans Boulevard, said staff are sanitizing the storefront and washing their hands as much as possible.
The store also implemented social distancing in line with state and national guidelines.
Tape on the floor marks the appropriate distance customers and cashiers should keep from one another, a custom normally seen only at banks or credit unions.
“We’re washing our hands as much as possible, keeping a six-foot distance,” Greer said. “We spray disinfectant all day long.”
Greer said business slowed since the outbreak of the virus took hold in Mississippi and Louisiana, but he’s still seen customers coming from out of state into the store.
But his main concern is making sure his employees keep their jobs through the economic crisis.
“As of now, we’re staying open all night long for the highway traffic, keeping everybody working,” he said.
He said he worries about keeping himself and his family healthy but he knows he’s doing an important job.
“It’s there, but we’ve got a job to do,” he said.
Blue Sky cashier on Delaware Avenue Brennan Bullock said he’s keeping calm while working nights behind the register at the Delaware Avenue convenience store, but he knows people from all over might stop into the store.
“I’ve been working nights, and it hasn’t been too crazy,” he said. “We had one lady come in from Louisiana. She was scared, asking if we’re going to close up. It doesn’t look like we are.”
Bullock said he’s using lots of hand sanitizer on the job and is aware of the risk of infection inherent in handling cash throughout his shifts at work.
“I’m touching money all day long,” he said. “I started two weeks ago.”
He said people often come in during the night shift and ask him whether they should evacuate and leave the area.
“People always ask, ‘What can I do to get out?’ ” he said. “But really, they should stay home.”