Since the early days of Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 shutdown, Wawa convenience stores have been classified as essential businesses, keeping its doors open as the disease has waxed and waned.
The public continued to purchase items deemed necessary for survival at essential businesses, and many public officials have called essential workers backbones of the community. At one Wawa in Easton, Pennsylvania, located along Cattell Street near Lafayette College, staff worked to figure out the best ways to operate during the pandemic.
In the early weeks of the coronavirus, Wawa encouraged employees not to make customers uncomfortable inside the store, according to Mark Thomas, a night shift supervisor.
Employees were directed not to wear face masks during their shift. They were also advised not to cough or sneeze on the sales floor, he said.
“If we had to sneeze and/or cough, we had to try and do it off of the sales floor, away from the customer’s point of view,” he said.
While Wawa employees were learning how to navigate work during the coronavirus crisis, many feared going home, Thomas said.
“A lot of us were scared because a good deal of the staff are younger people who live with older people who are more prone to this disease,” he said.
Though some of the younger staff are worried about bringing the virus home, a majority of the staff at Thomas’ Wawa are older and more vulnerable to the virus, he said.
Once Wawa’s corporate office implemented more stringent disease prevention practices and policies, COVID-19 seemed more manageable inside the store. Shelves were immediately filled with face masks, gloves, and sanitization products. Plexiglass shield guards were put up at registers, deli areas, and the coffee station.
“Wawa was the first place I noticed shield guards up,” said Lafayette undergrad Mitchell Lapka. “I’ve seen workers making an effort to wipe everything down, from the screens to the register.”
More safety procedures went into place as Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf placed major cities on lockdown. All Wawa employees were required to take their temperature at the beginning of every shift.
“Some other regulations put into place included the suspension of all self-serve equipment, which includes the soda bar, iced coffee, icee machine, and the self serve hot coffee bar,” said Maya Ramirez, a Wawa sales associate. “[It] turned into us, the associates, making customer coffees upon request.”
As Northampton County, where Easton is located, entered the green phase, life inside the Wawa had begun to return to normal. The store added another employee to their roster, a clean force team member who sanitizes the store for 12 hours, daily. When that employee leaves, the overnight cashier will take over cleaning duty. These cleaning measures have allowed the store to reopen the self-serve food and beverage areas, something locals are grateful for.
Some customers from the area said this particular Wawa is their favorite place to buy groceries, and have relied on it staying open, no matter what.
“If I ever have a list of 10 items or less, I usually just come here to get groceries because it’s faster and less crowded than a supermarket,” Ellen Cottrell said.
Patrons who enter the Wawa without a mask are urged to wear one immediately. If they don’t comply, they are whisked out of the store as quickly as possible, Ramirez said.
During the beginning of the pandemic, Wawa employees could not offer patrons a face mask, but they are now allowed and encouraged to do so.
“From my experience, when people do not wear masks, a lot of times other customers point it out to them directly,” Ramirez said.
Because working during coronavirus placed grocery and convenience store workers at higher risk, many stores increased employee compensation. In the early weeks of the pandemic, Wawa instituted a temporary pay increase for those willing to work. It also increased paid leave.
“Everyone who worked was paid $3 extra on top of their hourly pay,” Thomas said. “You could take a three week paid leave if you felt unsafe. And if you contracted COVID, you would be on paid leave until you return.”
The company has since partially scaled back pay increases.
“As of now, all associates and management are getting $2 extra an hour,” Thomas said.
Many customers have turned to Wawa during the pandemic out of both comfort and routine. Staying open wasn’t easy, but with time, Wawa’s corporate office developed practices and policies that made working and shopping in Wawa feel safer, Thomas said.
“I couldn’t be happier that Wawa stayed open during this crazy and scary time,” said Olyvia Nunez, a Wawa regular. “I come get a coffee every morning, so them not closing made me keep my normal routine, even during a hectic past few months.”
Editor’s note: Our special reporting on COVID-19 may focus on communities outside Philadelphia because many of our student journalists are now temporarily located outside of the city. Instead, our reporters will cover how the coronavirus is impacting their own communities from across the country and around the world. We will return to hyperlocal coverage of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods as soon as possible.
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