Coping with COVID-19

Driving in this morning over the bridge, the road is eerily quiet during what’s usually the earliest stages of rush hour. Quiet because of light traffic, but also the ambient noise is quiet, like after a sudden snow. At other times since the virus began traffic hasn’t seemed reduced at all. Especially during a sunny day everything seems pretty much as normal (sort of like Canada, close but not exactly). In fact last weekend I saw more RV traffic than I would usually see at any time outside the height of summer. I don’t know what RVers know that we don’t; maybe a lot of spots that accommodate them have closed.

Spring may not have sprung but the signs are all there: cherry blossoms and baby birds. Yet it doesn’t feel like spring. Even with COVID-19 issues complicating our usual workloads time seems suspended, a no-season marked by fear, with everything postponed and scheduling open-ended. Relatives on the Gulf Coast used to have hurricane parties. I don’t think anyone’s much in the mood for a party, but there is that sense of waiting for the shoe to drop, and all bets are off. Not to mention the uncertainty of the aftermath.

In early March we posted an option for curbside service, encouraging clients needing food to arrange for a box pickup without the need to come inside the building in order to reduce contact. We began an even more vigilant than usual regimen of sanitization, handwashing, and glove protocol. Two weeks later curbside service is now our exclusive method for distribution for the duration of the crisis.

ShareNet remains committed to being open as long as it’s feasible and seems smart to do so. In serving the most vulnerable in the community, we believe we have an obligation to be here, though we understand both mandated and elective closures.

Being onsite and serving is important to our volunteers. If you ask them, the time they spend on their shift(s) here is a top priority during their week. Early on, we asked anyone not feeling well or who identified themselves as high risk to stay home, and at first there weren’t many. But as the sense of the crisis deepens, more of our senior volunteers have elected to stay home. At this writing we’re down about 30 percent of our total volunteer pool.

Initially, as clients tried to figure out their response to the virus and make decisions about public places there was a roughly correspondent drop in people seeking help, so the volunteer loss didn’t have the impact it might have otherwise. Two weeks in, client numbers are back up and the percentage of volunteers out is becoming serious.

As people concentrate on staying safe, on their own families and needs, all donations to our operation are way down, whether in financial form, food, or goods to the thrift store which serves as one of our support streams. Grocery Rescue is also much reduced as participating stores become more taxed. We’ve always purchased a lot of the food we distribute anyway in order to control our inventory and offer a nutritious variety, investing in fresh and frozen produce for our clients, but in a protracted crisis compounded by declining donations our ability to purchase will be compromised.

Our client services rose rapidly after 2008 from around 2,000 annually to over 24,000 in the worsening reality of a recession, part-time jobs, low wages, and the high costs of housing, healthcare, and food. Even after a heralded economic recovery, those client numbers never went back down. No one knows where COVID-19 is going exactly, but what we do know from previous experience is: in a crisis the most vulnerable become more vulnerable.

ShareNet Food Bank remains open. ShareNet Thrift Store is temporarily closed. Mark Ince is the director of ShareNet and can be reached at director@sharenetfoodbank.org

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