Iqaluit grocery stores face slew of challenges during COVID-19 outbreak
‘What’s important now is to get rid of the spread in Iqaluit,’ says co-op store manager
Grocery store managers in Iqaluit say they are coping day by day with challenges posed by COVID-19 during the city’s current outbreak.
These include a heavier workload, staffing shortfalls, strict public health requirements and cargo delays — as well as the possibility that store workers could test positive for COVID-19 or need to isolate.
“There are times when the struggle is real,” said Mona Godin, manager of D.J.’s Specialties convenience store. It’s a small space, overflowing with merchandise from batteries to bananas, similar to stores in Nunavut’s smaller communities.
Since April 15, when the outbreak started in Iqaluit, Godin has positioned a staff member at the door to make sure only 10 customers are inside at a time.
The situation has improved since many were refused entry, Godin said, because “now, it seems like everyone understands that they can’t come with their whole family.”
The store is open every day except Christmas. Godin said she hasn’t had a break for more than a year because she can’t afford to spend two weeks in an isolation hub on her return.
“No one has time for that,” she said. “It is a very long haul.”
Stéphane Daigle, manager of Arctic Ventures Marketplace, also hasn’t been back south to see his family in New Brunswick in more than a year.
“We’re dug in now. We’re prepared now,” he said. “What’s important now is to get rid of the spread in Iqaluit. That’s all we can focus on.”
COVID-19 brought an unexpected closure to The Source, which is located within Arctic Ventures, early in the current outbreak when an employee tested positive. This put everyone into isolation and closed the store down completely for a week until relief staff came in for a second week.
Even now, Daigle said he’s never certain who will show up for work because there are “so many people in isolation now.”
“We adapt day to day,” he said.
Daigle says his workload has increased by 25 per cent and getting two days off a week is a challenge.
The store started a home delivery service, he said, and it’s challenging because this new way of doing business attracts 40 orders a day.
He offers the service because he knows it’s inconvenient to shop at his store right now. Staff must limit the number of people who can come into the store, and check on social distancing and masking.
“And we can’t even always get the products they want,” Daigle said. For example, chicken egg rolls are hard to come by due to supply issues from China.
The good news is that due to the outbreak no one is loitering around the front of the store.
This means Bollywood music, usually played full-blast outside the store to discourage people from hanging out at the entrance, has been put on hold, Daigle said.
Down the street at the North Mart, staff are also dealing with staff in isolation, online orders and the preparation of hampers for distribution by the Government of Nunavut and Inuit organizations.
“We’ll have this perfected by the time this is over,” John Kelly, the market manager, said of the new online orders.
“It’s busy,” he said. “Hectic keeping things going, keeping things clean and morale high.”
Over at Baffin Canners, the pandemic has brought a “different kind of busy,” said owner Marc Dubeau. Right before 6 p.m. used to be the busiest time pre-pandemic, but now people come in shopping all through the day.
The stores — from Baffin Canners, with 12 employees, to Northmart, with about 175 — are all participating in COVID-19 swab tests for workers.
Cargo issues also continue to affect all of the city’s stores.
At the beginning of the outbreak, COVID-19-related shipping delays at Canadian North in Iqaluit led to a weekend of cargo flight cancellations and shelves bare of some fresh produce.
More recently, COVID-19 led to a “disruption” at its Ottawa cargo area this past weekend, said Canadian North vice-president Andrew Pope.
But the airline has found a way around this, by routing some of its Boeing-767s with cargo out of Hamilton, rather than Ottawa, a situation that will continue until least May 27, he said.
Canadian North’s Ottawa cargo office remains open, but only for essential shipments under 225 kilograms.
Kenny Bell, the mayor of Iqaluit, said the many challenges facing city grocers haven’t gone unnoticed. “We have appreciated all they are doing especially since they have also had staff and cargo shortages,” he said.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that Arctic Ventures did not completely close down during the COVID-19 outbreak in Iqaluit.