As residents across the Chilkat Valley hunker down at home to stay safe and keep COVID-19 from spreading, grocery store workers mix with the public daily as they stock shelves, man cash registers and bag groceries.

Although they never imagined themselves as being on the front lines of a global pandemic, grocery store workers, some still in high school, are now considered essential workers who help keep food available to residents who could be infected with the virus.

“Applying for a job at Howsers now would be like signing up for the Army,” Howsers IGA owner Mike Ward quipped.

Howsers employees say they’ve seen residents come into the store who have recently traveled, but that as the public’s awareness of the health concerns has grown, panic buying and in-store traffic has slowed down. The store recently posted a sign telling recent arrivals to stay out of the store and self-quarantine for two weeks.

“I think we have people that are sick who are coming to the store to get groceries before they are told they have to go home,” Howsers worker Tony Wilson said. “It slowed down a lot since we started doing deliveries on Friday. I think that took a little pressure off people thinking they need to come in and get stocked up.

Nathan Haas, a Haines School senior, is working more hours as a stock clerk and grocery bagger now that his classes are online. He said as news of the health mandates first came in, the mood around the store was frantic, especially when workers saw customers fresh off the ferry.

“At first it was pretty crazy,” Haas said Monday afternoon. “There were a lot of people coming in trying to get as much stuff as they could before the world ended. It was a little worrisome. It’s gotten better over the past week.”

Haas said although he’s regularly exposed to the public, he feels protected by the health mandates and the store’s sanitation practices. He said he’s grateful he has a job.

“I was going to work part-time when school was still in session. Now that it’s online, I have more time to come in here and help out. That’s pretty nice.”

Cashier Saldie Wilson said she feels protected by the six-foot markers in the checkout aisles and the free hand sanitizer manufactured and donated by the Port Chilkoot Distillery.

“We have (sanitizer) on the check stands,” Wilson said. “I like to spray down the stand after a big rush to sanitize it. I sanitize the card machine because I notice a lot of people use their cards.”

Health experts say the virus can live on cardboard packaging for about a day, and on plastic for several days. People should wash their hands after handling items and sanitize carts and other items that are touched often.

Wilson said she often hears customers complaining that the store might not be sanitary.

“I hear it all the time when customers come in,” Wilson said. “We try to keep on top of it because if we don’t we won’t be able to have the store open. I think people should know we are on top of it.”

Ward said operations at the grocery store have been challenging, but most of his staff want to keep the store going.

“We’re really proud of our staff,” Ward said. “They are definitely on the front line. They’ve really come through for the community.”

Howsers started an ordering system last week. Customers can submit orders at [email protected]. The Salvation Army is helping to deliver groceries from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Mountain Market owner Mike Borcik said they have staff sanitizing across the store after customers and at timed intervals. “By a certain interval the alarm goes off and we wipe handles, door frames, refrigerator handles, credit card machines, and the stylus for doing the signature,” Borcik said.

Before the barge came in, Borcik said they could hear crickets in the store. When stock arrived, he said about half his sales are from call-in orders.

Orders can be phoned in at 766-3340 or by emailing [email protected]

Olerud’s Market Center owner Sarah Swinton said about 15 to 20 people per day order groceries from her store on busy days. When she spoke to the CVN on the phone she was running the till while her son Tyler Swinton was carrying groceries out to a customer and another worker was collecting items from the shelves for someone else.

“This week has been the first week we’ve implemented the phone in (orders),” Sarah Swinton said. “That’s keeping us going because people are calling in or emailing.”

Swinton said she has seen less panic buying, and guessed that her customers are experimenting in their kitchens.

“For the first time I’m out of flour and sugar. I’m out of yeast. I think people are doing more baking,” Swinton said on Friday. “I think people are being creative at home with the hopes we have the groceries here to do it.”

She said her supplier is limiting the amount of cases per item she can order in dry goods. She can only order one case, 12 boxes, of penne pasta, for example, and can only order 400 total cases each week.

“I just want to get back to normal,” Swinton said. “I want everybody to be able to do what they want to do. In the meantime we’re here to help.”

Customers can call Oleruds at 766-2441 to place their orders.