Billiann Dolby’s grandfather lost two young sisters in the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.
That loss is in the back of her mind as she takes precautions to shop for her family, which ranges in age from 3 to 71 years old under the same roof. In a word, her approach is “mindful,” including wearing a mask, shopping when stores aren’t crowded and being the only one in her household to venture out. She also likes to shop at local farmers markets.
“I said to one son, ‘I’d rather tell your children stories about me than have you tell them stories about me,’” Dolby, 64, of Hallowell, said.
She is among the many Mainers who changed their shopping habits when the novel coronavirus came to Maine in March and Gov. Janet Mills issued a stay-at-home order and curtailed activities at restaurants and other businesses.
Even as nonessential businesses reopened in July, careful shoppers still opted for curbside pickup, big grocery trips for enough food to last at least a couple weeks and stores where sanitizer is plentiful and staff and shoppers wear masks and physical distance. For some, it’s to keep themselves safe. For others, it’s to avoid spreading the virus to susceptible elderly friends and family or those with underlying conditions.
The changes coincide with reduced movement by people nationally and in Maine as the virus surges. Trips to recreation and retail establishments were down 19 percent on Nov. 20, similar to a 20 percent decline nationally, according to Google data. Those reports compared last Friday to the median value for the corresponding Friday during the five-week period from Jan. 3, to Feb. 6, before the virus hit the United States hard. Travel to food sellers and pharmacies was down 2 percent in Maine and 8 percent nationally last Friday.
Now that the spreading coronavirus looms over holiday get-togethers and gift-shopping, the changed habits are becoming more of a lifestyle change. That’s the case for Steph Barrett, 50, a Belgrade social worker who said she switched more to online and curbside purchases out of the gate in March.
She has visited some stores, but avoids ones where shoppers are not wearing masks. Employees tend to be more compliant than customers, she said. Barrett and her partner also will drive by a store if the parking lot is too full and go back when it is not. She said that ironically, at some stores frequented by tourists, almost no one was wearing a mask except for people with an out-of-state license plate.
“It’s getting better, but there still are people in the stores without masks,” she said.
One complaint she has is that several grocery stores changed around their aisles during the pandemic, making it harder to find items and causing her to spend double the time in the store searching for necessities.
For the most part as the holidays approach, she is sticking close to home, concerned about not getting sick herself. She said she cannot afford to be away from work and is concerned about the long-term health effects of the virus. Barrett also has asthma, an underlying condition that can make a virus infection more severe.
She also doesn’t want to transmit the virus and has a new grandchild who she only sees online for now. Thanksgiving and the upcoming holidays will be spent at home, though there will be occasional trips to do-it-yourself stores to rebuild the pipes in her house.
“We actually had a leg up on this early on at considerable sacrifice and now it seems like for whatever reason it’s become politicized,” she said of the state. “Now we’re in it for the long haul and it’s getting worse.”
Sarah Oliver, 37, of Unity, who works at Fedco Seeds, also changed her shopping habits in March when the state reported its first virus case and began wearing a mask before the governor mandated them. She made a large shopping trip to buy staples like cooking oil in bulk before the lockdown, and with the canned and frozen goods from her garden, was able to reduce shopping trips in the coming months. Her employer also has a buyers cooperative where she could get beans and flour.
For a while, she shopped curbside when needed. But as more information emerged about how the virus spread, she felt more comfortable going into stores for short shopping trips knowing she wouldn’t be in close contact with people for long periods of time, she said.
“I still try to have a preference for stores where there’s good masking among employees and shoppers,” she said. “When I see people wearing masks, that’s a sign that they’re caring about their neighbors.”