VANCOUVER -- A new kind of front-line worker is emerging across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic: grocery store employees.

Faced daily with hordes of shoppers stocking up on food and other supplies, the cleaners, cashiers and store clerks of Canadian grocers are among the few essential workers mandated to stay at work. While their risk of exposure to the new pathogen may not be as strong as health-care professionals on the front line, it’s heightened as many take on more shifts and longer hours to keep stores stocked.

“I would say that the times have been stressful for everyone,” said Brian Bradley, president of Stong's Market in North Vancouver.

But his store, like many across the country, have made a number of operational changes to increase the safety of customers and staff. Carts and baskets are disinfected constantly to keep the virus at bay. Some grocers have cut back opening hours to allow for more cleaning. Some have installed plexiglass shields at registers, including Loblaws and Rabba locations.

Others, including Stong’s, have pasted physical distancing markers on the ground to remind customers of public health recommendations, and limited the number of people allowed in the store. At Stong’s, they’ve placed limits per customer for certain popular products, and only allow about 10 customers in the store at any given time, moves meant to deter the kind of panic-buying chaos seen earlier this month around the world.

“Controlling the number of customers in the store has probably calmed things down quite a bit,” said Bradley, who’s seen more often in stores these days than in the office.

Stong’s florist Alex Watson has taken on a new role in crowd control at the grocery store. Before the pandemic, she mostly helped customers pick out gifts. It can be difficult keeping people apart, she told CTV News, but she does it with a smile.

“Just keep an upbeat, positive attitude, because I have seen a lot of people really stressed,” she said.

There has been increased recognition for grocery store workers amid the coronavirus pandemic. Some companies have had hiring spikes and wage top-ups. Loblaws said in a statement last week was raising wages by 15 per cent. Metro announced a boost of $2 an hour to worker wages. 

On the ground at Stong’s, customers were thankful too, applauding the hard work of the staff who are keeping the stores open and stocked for a community in self-isolation.