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WFAE's Social Distancing series looks at how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we live, work, learn and connect with each other. The series is hosted by reporter Sarah Delia.

Social Distancing: When You’re Essential

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, all of our lives have changed in some way. Maybe that means you’re working from home for the first time or having to put off a major life event like a wedding or funeral.

It might mean you’re out of work, taking an unexpected financial hit or juggling work while having your kids at home.

In our new series Social Distancing, WFAE’s Sarah Delia speaks with you, our listeners about the challenges you’re facing. WFAE is trying to do its best to work remotely, so the majority of this series, including the interviews, are being done from Sarah’s dining room table.

In today’s installment, Sarah speaks to a Charlotte worker whose job was deemed essential despite the North Carolina order to stay home.

There’s a type of waltz essential retail employees are doing right now with customers they have to interact with.

"It’s like a dance, they step forward, we step back," says an Autozone manager in Charlotte. We aren’t going to use her name for this story, she’s scared of losing her job.

The dance she’s referring to, is one that some customers are not willing to follow. She says in order to maintain the recommended 6 feet of social distance, employees ask a customer to put items on the counter and then step back to a yellow line on the floor so the employee can step up to the counter and safely finish the transaction. She says it’s not unusual to have to ask a customer multiple times to take a step back. 

"And then they will look around and they'll be like ‘ugh is this far enough?’ And we’ll be like ‘no sir please behind that yellow line.’ ‘Oh my God! Is this better? Can you hear me?’ And then they will yell because they want to be sarcastic. Six feet is not that far apart, I can still hear you, you don’t need to yell at me," she said.

She says because Autozone sells car parts that someone could legitimately need even in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the store is essential and remains open. But she says, the majority of customers aren’t buying the essentials right now. 

"There are some people that buy the things that they need like brake pads and rotors and lights but 95% of our sales this week have been car wash, because the weather is so nice they want to come in and wash their cars," she said.

She says customers have come in for car wax, license plate covers, and even super glue. 

"It’s crazy the things that people are coming outside for when all of this stuff is not essential, you don’t need this right now. Stay home with your family and be safe."

With so many people out of work, she says she feels lucky to have her job. But, the hostility from customers is hard to take. She says it ranges from one customer joking he had the coronavirus after sneezing in the store to another who was so upset she was asked to step back from the counter in order to maintain 6 feet of social distance, they had to call the police. 

And on top of that she’s interacting with people who may have been exposed to the virus. She’s trying to take the state order to stay home seriously--that is when she’s not at work. But she doesn’t see others doing the same. 

"You still have the same amount of people out on the road. I still get to work at the same time though I should be getting to work way earlier cause there shouldn’t be any traffic," she said.  "There are still so many people out there doing their every day lives.  I don’t think people are taking it seriously. I don’t think their employers are taking it seriously.  The only difference is  you can’t sit down at a restaurant and order your drink."

Generally, she likes her job. She says she even relocated from up north to Charlotte for her current position. But she’s now dealing with something she says she didn’t expect, especially in the south, it's the absence of decorum and lack of southern hospitality during a global pandemic. In her experience, that cup has run dry, left only with the bitter taste of anxiety and uncertainty. And she’s not sure when it will be refilled. 

"When it’s the state telling you or the county telling you or even the president telling you, you gotta listen to somebody, they aren’t talking about this because they want you to turn on your television, they are telling you this because people are loosing their lives."

WFAE wants to hear from you. If you’d like to share your story on the new challenges you’re facing in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, give us a call and leave a voicemail. The number is 704-916-9114. Or go wfae.org for more information. Follow WFAE for the latest news. And we hope you and your loved ones are taking care. 

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What questions do you have about the coronavirus? What has this experience been like for you? Share your questions below.


Sarah Delia is a Senior Producer for Charlotte Talks with Mike Collins. Sarah joined the WFAE news team in 2014. An Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist, Sarah has lived and told stories from Maine, New York, Indiana, Alabama, Virginia and North Carolina. Sarah received her B.A. in English and Art history from James Madison University, where she began her broadcast career at college radio station WXJM. Sarah has interned and worked at NPR in Washington DC, interned and freelanced for WNYC, and attended the Salt Institute for Radio Documentary Studies.