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What it's like to be a retail business owner, and employee, in the age of COVID-19

Paulette Parker
Michigan Radio
Julie Everitt, right, and sister Wendy Bacon run Whistle Stop Hobby & Toy. Their parents founded the business in St. Clair Shores 50 years ago.

As retail businesses re-open throughout Michigan, small business owners are being asked to walk a fine line:  Attracting as many customers as they can, while also enforcing new state and local rules meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

We talked to two small business owners about how they’re navigating this new world. We also spoke to a number of grocery store workers from across the state, all of them union members in UFCW Local 951. 

Here’s what they had to say.

Julie Everitt: “They want to stay safe, and also want to protect others in our community.”

Whistle Stop Hobby and Toy has been a fixture in St. Clair Shores, a suburb on the far east side of metro Detroit, for 50 years this year.

Julie Everitt’s parents started the business. She now owns and runs it with her sister, Wendy Bacon.

And it’s a kids’ wonderland. Shelves stacked high with puzzles, Legos, outdoor toys, and all sorts of other fun stuff for kids — and, let’s be honest, for their parents too.

Everitt said they’re deeply rooted here, and the community’s health and safety is important to them.

“It’s super important for us to protect everybody — our employees, and especially our customers as well,” Everitt said. “So we do ask that everybody wears a mask when they come in.”

Everitt said that like many small businesses, they had to shut their doors when the COVID-19 pandemic first struck back in March. Then they’ve slowly moved toward re-opening. For the past month and a half, they’ve been doing curbside service. And then they recently started doing in-store shopping by appointment.

Just this past week, they fully opened their doors again — for ten customers at a time. Everitt said that so far, she hasn’t encountered anyone who’s balked at any of the safety guidelines, including wearing a mask.

Credit Paulette Parker / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Inside the Whistle Stop.

“They want to stay safe, and also want to protect others in our community,” Everitt said. “So I feel like wearing a mask hasn’t been a problem at all.”

Everitt said that if they do run into a customer who resists, she’s not quite sure how they would handle it. She’s hoping customers will just follow her and her employees’ example.

“I don’t feel that I can force people to wear it,” said Everitt. “You know what I mean? And nor would I want to do that. It’s a fine line. I don’t know what to do with it yet. I guess we’ll kind of see as it goes along.”

Moriah Dean: “He said ‘don’t take my cooperation for weakness.’”

Moriah Dean has had a somewhat different experience. She owns and runs a small ice cream and treat shop in Sterling Heights, another Macomb County suburb.

Dean is requiring customers to wear masks, and practice social distancing inside the store. She said around 80% of her customers have fully complied. But there have been a few incidents.

One sticks out in Dean’s mind. It was a man and his family, customers that she’s been serving for years. But when she asked the man to put on a mask, he told her:  “No no no no no. We’re not doing that. We’re not doing that. Absolutely not. Those masks do nothing to you.”

Dean said she offered the man options. He could place his order, and she would take it out to the family in the car. But he wanted to fight.

“He was screaming at us, telling us all of these conspiracy theories like the masks don’t work, we’re hurting ourselves, they’re masking the truth,” Dean remembered.

Dean said the man’s wife begged him to stop making a scene. But he wouldn’t quit.

And Dean said she was actually scared. “The man said — I will never forget this — he said ‘don’t take my cooperation for weakness.’”

Which Dean noted struck her as a weird response. For one thing, he wasn’t cooperating. And it never would have occurred to her to interpret things that way.

Dean said there’s one specific demographic that seems to be resisting the most: older white men. She said she hasn’t had a problem with any other group. And that’s taught her a lot about how some of her customers see her.

“I’m a business owner, telling them what to do, but they don’t see me as that,” Dean said. “They see me as a little girl who’s telling them to put a piece of fabric over their mouth.”

All over Michigan, small business owners are being forced to take on a new role: policing behavior in an ongoing public health crisis.

Dean said that even with most of her customers being very cooperative, it’s proved more challenging than she would have thought.

Employees are at-risk, and often uncomfortable

We also wanted to hear from the perspective of workers, who’ve been showing up every day for their jobs in a pandemic, watching customers who don’t want to follow the mask recommendation.

Here's what three of them had to say:

Kevin Riley, Meijer worker, Grand Rapids:

"When it first started happening, I left work on a Friday and cases were full of meat, everything looked good. We walked in there Saturday morning – and it’s a big meat case – and there was like three packages left in the beef case. The grind case, there was not one thing there. There was not one package of chicken left. There was not one package of pork left. I mean, empty. Gone. And I had never seen anything like that before."

Cathy, retail store worker, in the meat department:

"In the beginning, people would look at you and thank you for what you’re doing within tears in their eyes. And it was so wonderful inside to feel that I was doing something to help people and trying to make them feel comfortable and we’re all in this together."

Chiquita Dudley Cooper, grocery store worker:

"We've practiced glaring at people to make them feel uncomfortable like they're making us feel uncomfortable by not protecting us..." - Cathy, retail store worker.

"I have a few underlying conditions so I’ve always worn the mask. The minute that they said we should wear a mask, I’ve always worn one. When my store actually initiated that all the team members should have one on, that made me feel so much better that everybody was actually wearing one."

Riley: "And for the most part, customers are respectful too. I mean, you know I’ve backed off on a few of them, a few times."

Cooper: "The majority of the customers are not wearing a mask. There is a sign recommending that they do. But it’s nothing that’s forced on them."

Cathy: "We’ve practiced glaring at people to make them feel uncomfortable like they’re making us feel uncomfortable by not protecting us … I’m sorry. I just got off of working all day, and all the people that come in, not protecting me, not protecting my people that I care about … Some people don’t believe it’s real. Maybe I watch too much TV, but if in half an hour while you’re in shopping, while I have to wear a mask for eight hours a day – it’s horrible wearing a mask, they’re not comfortable, they’re hot, it’s horrible – and you can’t do it for us for a half hour while you’re shopping?

"I don’t get it. I don’t get it – why my life doesn’t mean more, my friends’ lives don’t mean more than taking a chance of getting one of us sick, or bringing it to our families."

Cooper: "Wear your mask. Please wear face covering. I can’t stress it enough."

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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