Danielle Hoppe’s asthma is so bad that even in good times, she keeps her inhaler in her purse.

But lately, amid the rapid spread of the deadly novel coronavirus, the 20-year-old full-time college student has been using it more and more, taking a precautionary puff as she heads to work as a customer service manager at Cub Foods in Mankato.

Hoppe knows she risks her health every shift, no matter what precautions she takes, such as cleaning pen pads with rubbing alcohol, spraying disinfectant on baskets and carts or insisting customers stay 6 feet away.

She’s one of thousands of anxious grocery workers across Minnesota and the country whose daily work routines put them in danger of contracting COVID-19. Some have quit. Others just stopped showing up. Still others act like doctors and nurses, disrobing as soon as they get home and tossing clothes straight into the laundry.

The job Hoppe took to pay for college has transformed into something akin to a duty and a sacrifice. While the extra work — and the $2-an-hour pay bump from Cub Foods, plus double overtime — may help pay down roughly $30,000 in college debt, she’s saving that money to help her weather weeks away from the job should she test positive for COVID-19.

“I’ve just been preparing myself for when I’m going to get it, not if,” the junior at Minnesota State University, Mankato said. “If anyone’s going to get it, it’s going to be someone on the front end, especially someone who is immuno-compromised like me.

“That’s the mind-set you have to have every day: ‘Today’s the day I’m going to get it.’ It’s all about your plan for after you get it — and I’m certain I’m going to get it.”

Best and the worst

If one place encapsulates the best and the worst moments of everyday life during the coronavirus pandemic, it’s grocery stores.

On one hand, grocery workers speak of the worst in humanity coming out: panic buying and hoarding. Fights in aisles over toilet paper and Parmesan cheese. Long work hours and constant anxiety about exposure and infection. Short-fused customers who take frustrations out on grocery workers, at times bringing them to tears.

On the other hand, grocery workers describe moments of beauty and grace brightening these days of anxiety. The constant customer “thank yous,” just for showing up at work. The shopper who purchases a $100 cartload of groceries for the next person in line, just because. The single dad who works at a Brooklyn Park Cub Foods who, as he left his shift, heard an elderly woman distressed that the store had sold out of toilet paper, so he gave her half of a package he’d bought for his own family.

“That’s the attitude I want our store to have,” said Nate Gregg, the store director.

Said Eiluj Starr Ringle, a 24-year-old cashier at Linden Hills Co-op in Minneapolis: “There is this sense of camaraderie from being human through all of this. I hope that stays around.”

Some grocery workers, scared for their and their colleagues’ health, wouldn’t speak publicly on the issue, fearing they’d be fired at a time when the economy is tanking. Several big national chains and small local chains also did not permit staff members to be interviewed.

One cashier at a local chain complained to management a week ago about not providing gloves and has considered quitting, but she can’t lose her paycheck; she asked to remain anonymous. A cashier at another small Minnesota chain worried her company was too slow to protect workers with personal protective equipment, and fears colleagues could already be infected; she too asked that neither her name nor her store’s name be used.

But workers in the state’s grocery store industry, now considered “essential” in an increasingly locked-down society, have been largely pleased with how management has dealt with this unprecedented time, said Matt Utecht, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local Union 663, which represents more than 13,200 workers in Minnesota.

All grocery employers of unionized workers statewide have approved use of gloves and masks, Utecht said. And the union is lobbying the state Legislature to include grocery workers in a bill proposed by state Rep. Dan Wolgamott, DFL-St. Cloud, that would presume all COVID-19 diagnoses for first responders are job-related, making it easier to qualify for workers’ compensation.

“The work that [grocery store employees] are doing is helping to keep the rest of the state’s population calm,” Utecht said. “If people couldn’t get groceries, society would start to unravel in really short order. They’ve been launched into this spotlight they didn’t ask for, but retail grocery workers have responded in a heroic fashion.”

On the front lines

Heather Erickson has seen humanity’s extremes in just one workday.

The 45-year-old mother of three works as a cashier at a grocery in Blaine. After a middle-aged couple complained about how she handled their groceries, she apologized.

“You’re just lazy — that’s what you are,” the man told her. Erickson’s manager took over, and she went to the break room and cried.

But “thank yous” and moments of grace have lifted her up. Recently, a woman purchased a $25 gift card and gave it to her.

“If anybody is short a few bucks,” the woman said, “don’t make them put anything back.” It helped five customers that day.

Still, Erickson has personal worries.

Her husband died of lung cancer last year. She has rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia and had shingles earlier this year. Her two younger daughters have asthma. The youngest had respiratory syncytial virus as a baby and used nebulizers until a few years ago.

She worries about infecting her kids, so she recently decided to stay in her bedroom, isolated until further notice, even though she shows no signs of the virus. She sits in bed with her laptop, and her oldest daughter brings meals such as homemade chicken noodle soup and Asian noodles with peanuts and chicken: “Here’s your quarantine dinner.”

“People say, ‘You’re on the front lines,’ ” Erickson said. “By the time you know you have it, you’ve already infected everybody around you. That’s the scariest thing. I’m not worried about getting the virus and going through a bout of illness. People do that. But the fact I’m grocery worker, I’m a mom, there’s all these people in my life — I’d feel terrible if I infected anybody else.”

Encouraging feedback

Hoppe last drove from Mankato to the Twin Cities to visit her parents a couple of weeks ago. They sat on the opposite side of the couch. They used bleach on everything she touched. They worried about her petting the dog.

Although Hoppe assumes she’ll get the coronavirus, she was being treated by her parents like she already had it.

Still, she shows up for work.

Hoppe could selfishly pull things such as toilet paper from incoming shipments and buy them before they hit the shelves, but instead she saves them for customers, even when her personal supplies are running low. On a day off last week, she finally went on a big shopping run, after the initial crush of customers of recent weeks had ebbed.

There are hard days, when people lash out when the store is out of a certain item. She sometimes backpedals when a customer flashes a phone near her face to show a product. After her shift, she returns to her apartment, exhausted, where she works through her stress by watching “Tiger King” on Netflix.

“I have a lot of bad stories for you,” Hoppe said. “But what gets me through my day is all those people who say, ‘Thank you for coming in today, thank you for taking care of me, thank you for risking your life for mine.’

“After all the negative, those are the people that just restore my faith in humanity. Someone finally appreciates the work you’re putting in.”


reid.forgrave@startribune.com 612-673-4647