Essential & Exposed

A large plastic sheet hangs down and across the customer counter at the post office downtown, intended to protect postal workers and customers as they talk and transact business. Many stores operating during the pandemic restrictions have taken similar measures, installing clear plastic barriers to protect workers and the public.

While nurses, doctors and first responders daily risk possible exposure to the coronavirus, so to do the many people working in stores, handling money and touching potentially infected surfaces.

They don’t know who is walking in that front door next and whether they are infected. It is a bit of virus roulette for essential employees working at businesses allowed to remain open and operate through the pandemic shutdown.

In going around town Tuesday it was interesting to see some store clerks not wearing protective masks or gloves. They say they are taking the recommended and necessary precautions to protect themselves and the public through frequent hand washing and sanitization protocols for countertops, bathrooms, doors and gas pump handles.

Several store employees said they feel no more exposed or at risk now than at other times, like during seasonal flu season.

“It’s a little concerning, but I just wash my hands,” said convenience store clerk Kelsey Leach, looking down at where a reporter has firmly placed a hand on the countertop, knowing she will need to wipe that down afterward.

Local COVID-19 numbers

This graphic shows the number and results of tests for COVID-19 reported by Palo Pinto General Hospital.

Leach was talking from behind a clear, plastic panel installed to provide a barrier between cashiers and customers – to keep them from potentially exchanging droplets of coronavirus as they speak.

Many stores have undertaken similar measures. City Hall installed a large plexiglass enclosure at the city clerk’s counter. The post office has simply hung a large plastic sheet hanging down and running the length of the customer counter. Some of those added protective measures may become permanent, part of a new societal normal whenever we emerge from this public health issue.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Palo Pinto General Hospital reported four known cases of COVID-19 in the county. The hospital has performed 147 tests with 109 results negative for the disease and 34 results pending. Parker, Hood and Erath counties report six to 10 cases officially while Young has three, according to the Texas Department and Health and Human Services COVID-19 tracker.

Statewide, Texas is reporting over 8,200 cases of the disease with more than 1,200 people hospitalized. There have been 154 reported deaths in Texas from COVID-19. Nearly 90,000 people have been tested statewide.

Asked about not wearing personal protective items like masks and gloves, Leach said, “We are allowed to. We would have to change our gloves every time we deal with a customer or take money. It is just our choice if we want to our not.”

The CDC in the last few days has issued a recommendation people wear cloth face coverings when out in public. It is not mandatory at this time. Because of supply shortage, the CDC asks that medical face masks be reserved for health care workers, nurses, doctors and first responders.

Leach’s co-worker, Bianca Hungerford, said they have sanitizers and are frequently wiping and cleaning. She believes she is safe from infection without the need to wear a mask and gloves.

“I think it’s causing a bigger deal than what it is,” Hungerford said. “I am covered by a higher power so I don’t worry about that.”

The two were given a choice of whether they wanted to work.

“They gave us a choice, I chose to work,” said Leach.

“I haven’t really let it stop me,” said Hungerford.

Because business has slowed with fewer people working and out, their store has reduced hours, as have some other businesses.

“It has been slow,” Leach said.

U.S. COVID-19 cases

This graphic from the CDC shows the U.S. coronavirus cases by range as of April 7, 2020.

At a grocery store, check out lines don’t have protective barriers between the cashiers and customers. One cashier also did not feel a need to wear a mask or gloves for protection.

“I have heard the masks don’t really work,” the cashier said. “If I get it, I get it.”

Outside the store, Public Transit Services driver John Conrad waits for his next rider to come out. He has temporarily removed his mask as he waits behind the wheel, but will don it once again when his passenger is ready to board.

“All of us are wearing masks and gloves,” said Conrad, who has worked for PTS over three years. “We have disinfectant solution that we disinfect the bus with, all the handrails and seats after every passenger. It is a few extra steps, yes.”

He said for himself he is not concerned about working and being in contact with the public during the coronavirus outbreak.

“Not at this point,” he said. “We are just being careful. Sanitizing and washing our hands like you are supposed to. It’s not a big worry as far as I am concerned. We’re just being a lot more cautious, using a little more sanitation and being a little more careful. I think we are OK.”

Public transit is a much-needed service, especially for older citizens who need to make doctor’s appointments, go to therapy, dialysis, the pharmacy and grocery shopping. Conrad said those are the people he is more concerned about and wanting to protect, since they are more vulnerable if infected.

“That’s why I wear a mask,” Conrad said. “It’s not to keep me safe. It’s to keep them safe.”

At another convenience store, a clerk spoke on the condition her name not be used out of concerns for her job. She, too, decided to forego wearing a mask and gloves.

“I am really not concerned,” she said. “I wash my hands, and we continue to wash stuff down in the store. We disinfect areas and go outside and wipe our pumps down. I take my temperature twice a day. I am doing everything I can to take precautions.”

Asked why she chose not to wear protective gear, she said, “I don’t have the money to spend on replacement masks every two hours, which is what they suggest. I have more important things to spend my money on. I’m a single parent. We have gloves coming in, if we can get them.”

She said she is always concerned about the health of her family members, some who have their own health concerns and issues.

“It is what it is,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what you do. If you are meant to get it, you are going to get it. You can wash your hands. You can take showers. Some masks are not going to work. They have said that from the beginning. Those little masks, that’s fine but that is not going to keep you from getting it. And unless you change your gloves every time you touch something, that’s cross contamination. So the best thing you can do is wash your hands every 15 minutes.”

It appears the disaster declarations and federal, state and local restrictions will remain place into next month. People are urged to continue following the CDC recommendations for avoiding infection by staying home, or if you have to go out for essential supplies or work to practice self-distancing, keep social gathering to no more than 10 people with a single area, and frequently wash hands and sanitize surfaces.

First Baptist Church pastor Rev. Nathan Buchanan said test results for church staff returned negative. Another member of the staff became infected and was hospitalized. Buchanan asked the public for continued prayers for the staff member’s healing and recovery.

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