This week, two major retailers in Kodiak will require shoppers to wear masks. The change for Walmart took effect on Monday – and at Carrs-Safeway, today. For these chain stores, it’s part of a nationwide policy change to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
For shoppers like Jennifer Foster, trips to the grocery store are more than about shopping. In small towns like Kodiak, it’s also about meeting your friends in the aisle, catching up on each other’s lives. Foster says she misses that, but as a nurse she wears a mask at work all day long, and it’s become second nature.
“I think for now it’s good. And we’ll know more as the research tells us later on,” Foster said. “We try and get in and out quickly, because it’s not comfortable wearing masks – so my kids usually don’t come with me.”
Foster says when she comes across some of her friends, she can tell they’re trying to get their shopping done quickly, so she doesn’t try to engage them in conversation.
On Saturday, Tom Minio was one of those shoppers at Safeway in a big hurry. As captain of the Provider, he had a lot of groceries to buy, about $5,000 worth, to feed his fishing crew.
“Going to be gone for 50 days,” Minio said, as he hefted boxes into the bed of his pick-up truck.
Minio says he’s happy to wear a mask.
“I figure it’s a good preventative. Anything that can help,” he said.
And there was Emmanuel Flores, parked not far from Minion. He not only had a mask but a face shield.
“I’m picking the people at the airport,” said Flores, who works for a fish processor. His job is to take care of the new arrivals while they’re under quarantine.
“Bring food for the people. Make good protection for me.” He said, pointing to his face shield. “That’s a good idea.”
Carrs-Safeway is the only full service grocery store in Kodiak, so the impact of the new mask policy will be widely felt.
Mike Murray, who has managed the store for more than 20 years, says he’s glad most shoppers are already in the habit of wearing masks.
“I feel it’s the right thing to do within society,” said Murray, who believes the fastest way to regain normalcy is to stop the spread of infection.
“I know many of the retailers are doing it. Some have done it far longer than we’re doing it,” Murray said. “I think it’s going to provide some consistency among retailers, so that we all come together for what I believe is the right common good.”
Murray says he does worry about the group he sees most frequently without a mask, young men — guys like Ellias Kernan, a recent graduate of Kodiak High School. He flies two big American flags in the bed of his black pick-up truck.
Kernan says he’s not happy about the new policy, because it infringes on his freedom of choice. But will he refuse to wear a mask in the store?
“I respect the business,” Kernan said, even though he personally opposes wearing a mask. “Of course I’ll wear a mask.”
Young people have perhaps been the most affected by the movement towards mask wearing. It comes in the prime time of their lives for socializing.
At Mill Bay Beach, a few miles from the grocery store, a young fishing crew gathered on Saturday night to celebrate a mate’s birthday with a bonfire. None of them wore masks and said they’re tired of hearing about them.
One of the men, who asked not to be identified complained that he doesn’t trust the experts, because they keep changing what they say about masks and COVID-19 protection.
“They know. Then they don’t know. And then they know and they kind of know some more. And they know more,” he said.
But one thing coronavirus testing on Kodiak Island shows, out of 16 people who tested positive for the virus, half are between 20 and 29 years of age, the group least likely to cover their faces in public places.
“We feel it’s a good thing that Walmart and Safeway are requiring masks,” said Megan Christiansen, a spokesman for the Kodiak Area Emergency Services Organization. “It’s what health officials recommend to prevent the spread of the virus.”
As for the Safeway store in Kodiak, and Walmart as well, masks will not be provided to shoppers.
The Kodiak Arts Council provides free masks on Mondays from 11:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m. in front of the Gerald C. Wilson Auditorium.
Three food specialty stores in Kodiak are also requiring customers to cover their faces — Thai Market, Asian Groceries and Gifts and Cactus Flats, which carries natural foods. The manager of Cost Savers, a discount store, says masks are not required at this time.