In any post-apocalyptic action film, the lone guy selling tacos out of a truck would be the perfect character to cast as an unlikely hero: the ex-Navy SEAL type who slings burritos, yet becomes pressed into saving mankind—or at least helping some ragtag group of survivors who’ve been chased to the edge of the human abyss.
Carlos Pintor is not an ex-Navy SEAL, and he’s no Hollywood action hero. He’s a real guy in real life who works inside Rutaqueria Pancho, a Mexican food truck often seen parked in a lot along North Parker Drive near Janesville’s downtown tavern district.
This week, Pintor was serving up food in his usual spot.
Maybe he wasn’t dishing out the last tacos before an apocalypse. Yet, in the drab-gray afternoon, in an empty parking lot amid a downtown devoid of cars and bereft of the usual Friday happy-hour crowd, Pintor’s taco truck jumped out of a big-empty civic scene that seemed on a razor’s edge of austere, bordering on eerie.
Since March 12, the day Gov. Tony Evers declared a public health emergency over the mounting COVID-19 virus crisis, public life and the everyday pulse of commerce have changed dramatically. It’s not just the rapid and draconian temporary shuttering this week of some local businesses, a response to temporary government bans on measurable crowds in most public places.
It’s what comes with that. Or, rather, what doesn’t come. In Janesville and thousands of towns across the nation, it’s the dearth of normal human foot traffic.
People in Wisconsin as of Saturday night still were being allowed to move around freely, but it became clearer as last week wore on, amid government reports of statewide counts of COVID-19 infections rising, that many fewer people than usual were out for casual purposes.
A common sight now in human comings and goings: People keeping a 6-foot buffer between them and anybody else. It’s health officials’ main mantra in these days COVID-19: keep your social distance.
Those moving around Janesville seemed to be herding themselves in groups in and out of grocery stores and other retailers the state has deemed “essential” for purposes of gathering food, provisions and over-the-counter medical supplies.
Elsewhere, it’s the dearth.
As a business operator, Pintor feels it every time he opens his taco truck’s sliding customer window to check for drive-up customers who aren’t showing up.
The 7,500 watt generator powering Pintor’s taco truck roared and roared next to the empty, darkened taverns whose customers Pintor normally plies. It was the only audible noise on the entire street.
“March is supposed to be the kickoff of the food-truck season. It’s not been a great kickoff. At all,” Pintor said.
Pintor said he’s seen customers who want a taco no matter what. Still, he said, some of those people don’t even want to get out of their car to pick it up. They’ll order by phone, swing by the Rutaqueria Pancho truck, and crack their window a few inches as if to summon a burrito by airmail.
Other businesses are grappling to operate in collective loneliness in this period of isolation.
Facebook, the epitome of self-exile, is filled with posts from businesses, many from restaurants, admonishing their favorite customers not to forget they exist.
Those pleas came last week as some small businesses shuttered temporarily. Some have said it’s not possible for them to operate under the state’s temporary, 10-person crowd limit, or they seek to protect their workers from a threat of COVID-19 infection.
Some small and mid-size businesses have begun steps to send workers home, and the state government has unleashed its first mass layoff notices tied to the COVID-19 crisis. Notices last week included appliance manufacturer Sub-Zero group, which announced Friday layoffs involving 1,043 workers at its two Fitchburg plants, according to the state Department of Workforce Development.
A possible new influx of the unemployed locally who’d seek government unemployment services could face the same conundrum that might have factored into their own layoff: statewide bans on crowds and mass gatherings.
The state’s Department of Workforce Development announced last week that some government unemployment offices, including the Rock County Job Center, will be limiting in-person visits under state mandates on crowd sizes.
On the federal level, lawmakers continued late in the week to hash out how mammoth financial bailout bills would operate for both large-scale and small businesses.
In a whipsaw effect, area retailers and distributors who say they need help moving merchandise and stocking store shelves amid recent shopping crushes are now issuing ‘help wanted’ maydays.
Elsewhere, some local business offices in an emergency conference call with Forward Janesville last week suggested they’d begin to implement work-from-home measures to protect their employees.
Work-at-home plans have brought about possible dilemmas in an era of hyper-vigilance over cybersecurity.
Brian Lippincott, who runs Janesville IT firm Crystal Computer Consulting, said his company has begun servicing inoperable, sometimes decade-old laptops business clients have been bringing in.
The businesses say they’re gearing up to mobilize all available office computers in the event they’d need to send employees home to work.
Gov. Tony Evers said on Friday he wanted to avoid issuing a “shelter in place” edict in Wisconsin, something many other states have begun ordering.
Lippincott said depending on how protracted and how strict government mandates on COVID-19 become, businesses will have to balance concerns of cybersecurity with decisions on when and how they’d try to mobilize their employees at home.
It’s all uncharted territory, Lippincott said.
“Us, we’re used to dealing with viruses in computers. Not people viruses,” he said.
Keep your distance
Even as Illinois fell Saturday night under a “shelter in place” edict—a mandate for people not to leave home except for absolutely essential reasons—businesses here in the state line are trying to continue operations.
Some of measures are equal parts innovative and unheard of.
At auto dealership Hesser Toyota on Janesville’s north side, the sales staff decided during a weekend sales meeting it would remain open and keep its service garage running. But the dealership has also has begun offering to deliver cars to customers’ homes for test drives.
The sales staff has prepared to sell new vehicles or sign new vehicle leases with customers over the phone if necessary.
That’s among other measures, including stepped up vehicle and dealership sanitation Hesser now has in place as it weathers increased public distancing and isolation prompted by the coronavirus pandemic—a health crisis that comes during tax return season, a normally vital time for auto sellers.
Imagine a car salesman, of all people, avoiding handshakes with customers in keeping with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advice on COVID-19 social distancing.
Hesser General Manager Eric Hesser has trouble fathoming that phenomenon.
“Some people, customers, are coming in with gloves on. It’s a different time for everyone, we’re all learning on the fly, drastically, in the last week and a half,” Hesser said. “The natural reaction when you meet someone is to try to shake their hand. You have to almost will yourself to step back. It’s just a bit awkward when you even try to greet someone,” Hesser said.
Some of the door greeters at Sam’s Club now seem to be doubling as shopping cart scrubbers.
Those workers, at least late last week, had spray bottles of disinfectant and were systematically wiping down carts freshly hauled in from parking lot corrals. It made the big box store’s typical protocol—a self-cleaning station that allows customers to grab a wipe from a kiosk and mop down the handle of a cart before entry—seem somehow Old World.
To have a box-store bevy of shopping cart valets might seem unusual enough, but other workers at the store’s exit—those employees that scan customer checkout receipts to check against cart contents—were operating differently than usual, too.
Instead of taking a customer’s receipt to scan it, the workers could be observed motioning for customers to hold up their own receipts to allow the workers a “no-touch” scan.
Above the Sam’s Club exit hangs the same sign that’s been there years: the words of Walmart matriarch Helen Walton, which read: “It’s not what you gather but what you scatter that tells you what kind of life you’ve lived.”
Right now, the concept of “scattering” seeds—or scattering anything, for that matter—seems to take on an entirely different tone.
On Saturday at Kwik Trip’s Milton Avenue gas station convenience store, employees took turns playing barista as they operated a cordoned-off, bivouac-style coffee kiosk.
It’s the same kiosk customers normally use to grab self-serve coffee to go, but state health mandates enacted last week have prompted such kiosks to idle temporarily to prevent potential further spread of coronavirus.
The Kwik Trip worker manning the coffee machines Saturday morning was wearing blue surgical gloves and a beard net. He offered to mix coffee with four different types of creamer, and served it up to customers with a smile.
At the cashiers’ counter, a clerk said she believed that having a coffee operation up and running again brought people some comfort and normalcy. Call it Caramel Macchiato for troubled times.
“You’ve got to keep doing what you can, and you’ve got to keep going,” she said. “What’s the alternative?”