The importance of local grocery stores in small, northern communities has become very clear to Beverly Quinn, owner of the Meechum l'Inter Marché in Mistissini, Que., since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Canada.
The family-owned and locally-operated business is the only full-service grocery store in the Quebec Cree community of more than 4,000, about 800 kilometres north of Montreal.
"I think we are extremely important. We supply a lot of people in this community," said Quinn.
Now, in the midst of an outbreak of COVID-19 that has brought the country and much of the world to a standstill, stores like Meechum and their employees have become vital and essential service providers in their communities.
We reserve time for elders to come in. - Steve Rombotis, manager Meechum l'Inter Marché
"They really are like superheroes," said to Steve Rombotis, manager at the Meechum store, referring to the staff who keep the shelves stocked and the store operating.
As of Tuesday, there are no cases of COVID-19 in the Cree communities, but there is one confirmed case in nearby Chibougamau and five in the Abitibi region, where many Cree people shop.
Health board recommends shopping at home
The Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay is recommending people avoid shopping outside their own community, whenever possible.
"We have grocery stores and people are being told not to worry that the food supply will continue to come in," said Bella M. Petawabano, chairperson of the health board.
Many northern communities don't have a grocery store. In the Cree Nation for example, Oujé-Bougoumou and Waswanipi, don't have a local community grocery store and residents must travel to larger, non-Indigenous towns like Chibougamau more than an hour away.
Petawabano said it's important for residents to respect social distancing, wash hands often, shop alone and not to bring young children and elders with them, whether they are shopping inside or outside the communities.
More Mistissini residents are shopping at home since cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in the surrounding town, according to Rombotis, manager at the Meechum store in Mistissini.
"We are seeing an influx, but it hasn't stopped us from from being able to meet the demand," he said. He also said there have been no issues with deliveries of supplies.
Elders hour instituted
The store has put in place a number of measures from disinfecting grocery carts every 15 minutes, marking social distances on the floor and encouraging people to using contactless payment.
It has also started opening up first thing in the morning, only for elders and their escorts.
"We reserve that time for the elders to come in to do the shopping," said Rombotis. "The store is restocked [and] it's freshly cleaned."
The management also recently installed Plexiglas to protect staff, something that is important to Meechum owner Beverly Quinn.
"A lot of my staff is very dedicated. I do worry about them," said Quinn.