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Supervisor Andrea Pak rings up groceries Thursday protected by a clear plastic shield at the Piggly Wiggly in Milton.

EDGERTON

Grocery workers provide an essential service as they come into contact with dozens or hundreds of people each day, potentially exposing themselves to someone who has the coronavirus.

Jason Cowley, who owns the Piggly Wiggly groceries in Edgerton and Milton, wanted to protect his workers.

“There are just no masks out there. I’ve reached out to everyone I can think of,” Cowley said.

Then he heard about a co-op store in Madison that installed see-through plastic shields on the checkout lines. He decided to do it himself.

His first call was to Dave Warren of Dave’s Ace Hardware, who referred him to Congress Radiator and Glass in Janesville. Congress supplied quarter-inch-thick polycarbonate.

Cowley and some helpers attached the panels to the Milton checkout lanes with screws.

He found some thinner plastic panels that needed to be supported by wooden frames, which he installed at the Edgerton store Wednesday night with the help of Nelson-Young Lumber, he said.

“Customer and employee response has been very good,” Cowley said. “If nothing else, they feel more at ease with those up,” Cowley said.

Cowley said the two projects combined cost about $1,000. He said it’s a small price to pay for safety.

The pandemic has been stressful for grocery workers, particularly in the first few days as numbers of shoppers never seen before came to the stores, many buying large amounts, Cowley said.

“And I hate to say it, a lot was hoarding, too. You have to protect your family, but like they said on the news, there will be a food supply as long as we just buy what we need instead of stocking up,” he said.

The uncertainty over what is going on weighs on his employees’ minds, Cowley believes.

Some employees, and some parents of younger employees, decided the risk of working was not worth it, and Cowley said he honored that.

“We feel like it’s our civic duty to be open, though, so we’re going do our best stay open as long as we can,” Cowley said.

Cowley had interviewed prospective employees just before the pandemic hit, so he hired from that group, and college students and school teachers who are former employees have filled some shifts.

“We’re not complaining. It’s just part of the process with us. It seems like people are starting to relax now,” he said.

“Ninety-nine percent of the customers have been fantastic, really going out of their way to thank us and being understanding about limitations on the products we have,” Cowley said.

Cowley said he feels the stress, too, in part because he is staying up late to answer customers’ questions on the stores’ Facebook pages.

One of Crowley’s employees, office manager Jennifer Nunn, decided to inject some cheer into these dismal times. She designed T-shirts with the beloved Piggly Wiggly pig wearing a mask and gloves, along with the slogan, “We are all in this together.”

The shirts are for sale, $10 apiece. Proceeds will go to food pantries in Edgerton and Milton.

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