‘We’re stressed out’: Supermarket workers in Italy fear exposure to coronavirus

As customers continue to shop daily, touch the food, and even lick their fingers before counting out money, Italy's exhausted and anxious supermarket staff say they're being left overly exposed to the coronavirus.

'We're stressed out': Supermarket workers in Italy fear exposure to coronavirus
All photos: AFP

Trapped behind checkout counters for hours at a time, or stocking shelves amidst customers on supermarket floors, workers say they are in over their heads on the front lines and insufficiently protected.

A 48-year-old supermarket cashier who tested positive for coronavirus died in March in Brescia in Italy's hard-hit north.

That raised questions about whether enough was being done to protect workers.

Unions say others employed in the sector may have died without their cases being reported as coronavirus cases.

Last week, a 33-year-old supermarket security guard also died of the virus.

“We're scared of bringing something back home with us,” said Piera, a 31-year-old part-time cashier. She has worked for over a decade at a superstore in Novara, west of Milan, the city where the security guard died.

Workers who spoke to AFP asked that their last names not be used.

Piera has been given disinfectant gel, gloves, and a mask, which she must wash herself for reuse. It was only last week that the store installed Plexiglass shields in front of each checkout counter.

Grocery workers say many customers don't wear masks or gloves, and continue to shop daily, increasing the chances of passing on infection.

“They're buying stuff that I wouldn't be buying in an emergency,” said Chiara, a cashier at a supercenter in Rome, listing “Sushi, Nutella, beer…”

Most disheartening, she said, was seeing people act as though they are immune to a crisis that has killed nearly 12,500 people and infected over 100,000 in Italy.

Entire families show up to shop, some get too close to workers, and a few persist in “licking their fingers” before counting out their bills, Chiara said.


READ ALSO: Here are Italy's new quarantine rules on jogging, walking and taking kids outside

Last month, a man was arrested in Genoa after spitting in the face of a supermarket cashier, local media reported.

Unions have called for the government to require grocery stores to cut hours in order to relieve the burden on workers.

But Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte – hoping to reduce panic and runs on supermarkets – promised Italians on March 21 that stores will stay open.

Some local authorities, such as Rome's city council, have instructed supermarkets to reduce opening hours.

The two hardest-hit regions of Lombardy and Piedmont, in the north of the country, recommended that markets take shoppers' temperatures before being allowed inside.


READ ALSO: Why the coronavirus quarantine rules aren't always the same around Italy

But only some have done so, with others saying they cannot get hold of the thermal scanners they need.

In an open letter published on March 24, the secretary general of the Fisascat-Cisl union, which represents store cashiers and janitors, deplored the “almost total lack of any precautions” taken by the industry to protect its workers.

The main supermarket association in Italy, Federdistribuzione, has not issued specific coronavirus regulations to members, a spokesman told AFP. Instead, individual chains are taking measures.

Their precautions include putting up signs instructing customers to maintain safe distances, equipping staff “as far as possible” with gloves and masks, and limiting the number of people who can enter stores, said the group.

Some supermarkets including the A&O chain have been telling customers they cannot enter unless wearing a mask.

At another Rome store, cashier Corinne said new Plexiglass screens installed last week made her feel safer, but the barrier, along with gloves and mask, made her job harder.

Worse, she said, was dealing with customers who are themselves visibly anxious.

“We're also stressed out, but we can see that they're pretty stressed, too,” she said.

Workers struggle to control a constant fear of touching something, or someone, contaminated, said Chiara.

“You start thinking, 'Oh God, I just touched my face, you get kind of paranoid,'” she said.

Colleagues have had meltdowns, and some have called in sick to avoid going to work, workers said.
Those who spoke to AFP, said that in their stores staffing had been cut by as much as a third, with some workers on sick leave or using vacation to care for homebound children.

READ ALSO: Five reasons why the coronavirus hit Italy so hard

Piera said she and others felt disregarded, and in need of “courage” to go to work every day. A Facebook page she set up in 2010, “Confessions of a Cashier,” helps revive morale, with workers in the field sharing stores and commiserating.

“Some say we're heroes,” Piera said. “I don't think so, we're just doing our jobs, even though we're overlooked.”

“I don't want to be a hero. Just respected, that's enough.”

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Covid-19: Are Italian live events at risk of being postponed?

As the infection rate rises sharply across the country, Italian virologists are calling for concerts and festivals to be rescheduled.

Covid-19: Are Italian live events at risk of being postponed?

Italy has seen a large increase in the number of Covid-19 cases in recent days, so much so that a number of virologists across the country are now urging the government to postpone major live events in a bid to curb infections. 

According to a new report by Italy’s independent health watchdog, the Gimbe Foundation, 595,349 new cases were recorded in the week from June 29th to July 5th; a worrying 55 percent increase on the previous week. 

In the same time span, the country also registered a 32.8 percent rise in the number of hospitalised patients, which went from 6,035 to 8,003.  

The latest Covid wave, which is being driven by the highly contagious Omicron 5 variant, is a “real cause for concern”, especially in terms of a “potential patient overload”, said Nino Cartabellotta, president of the Gimbe Foundation. 

As Italian cities prepare to host a packed calendar of concerts and festivals this summer, health experts are questioning whether such events should actually take place given the high risk of transmission associated with mass gatherings.

READ ALSO: What tourists in Italy need to know if they get Covid-19

“Rescheduling these types of events would be the best thing to do right now,” said Massimo Ciccozzi, Director of Epidemiology at Campus Bio-Medico University of Rome. 

The summer wave is expected to peak in mid-July but, Ciccozzi warns, the upcoming live events might “delay [the peak] until the end of July or even beyond” and extend the infection curve.

Antonello Maruotti, Professor of Statistics at LUMSA University of Rome, recently shared Ciccozzi’s concerns, saying that live events as big as Maneskin’s scheduled Rome concert are “definitely not a good idea”. 

The Italian rock band are slated to perform at the Circus Maximus on Saturday, July 9th but the expected turnout – over 70,000 fans are set to attend the event – has raised objections from an array of Italian doctors, with some warning that the concert might cause as many as 20,000 new cases.

If it were to materialise, the prospected scenario would significantly aggravate Lazio’s present medical predicament as there are currently over 186,000 Covid cases in the region (nearly 800 patients are receiving treatment in local hospitals). 

Italian rock band Maneskin performing in Turin

Italian rock band Maneskin are expected to perform at the Circus Maximus in Rome on Saturday, July 9th. Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP

But, despite pleas to postpone the event, it is likely that Maneskin’s concert will take place as scheduled.

Alessandro Onorato, Rome’s Tourism Councillor, said that rescheduling is “out of question” and that “all recommendations from the local medical authorities will be adopted” with the help of the event’s organisers and staff on the ground.

At the time of writing, there is also no indication that the Italian government will consider postponing other major live events scheduled to take place in the coming weeks, though the situation is evolving rapidly and a U-turn on previous dispositions can’t be ruled out.

READ ALSO: At a glance: What are the Covid-19 rules in Italy now?

On this note, it is worth mentioning that Italy has now scrapped all of its former Covid measures except the requirement to wear FFP2 face masks on public transport (though not on planes) and in healthcare settings.

The use of face coverings is, however, still recommended in all crowded areas, including outdoors – exactly the point that leading Italian doctors are stressing in the hope that live events will not lead to large-scale infection.

Antonio Magi, President of Rome’s OMCEO (College of Doctors, Surgeons and Dentists), said: “Our advice is to wear FFP2 masks […] in high-risk situations.”

“I hope that young people will heed our recommendations and think about the health risks that their parents or grandparents might be exposed to after the event [they attend].”