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Grocery Shopping in HB during the time of COVID19


Artwork by Andrew Lee

Huntington Beach is all over the news these days because of the COVID19 protests, but Surf City’s always been associated with the outlaw side of California. It was named after a railroad robber baron, Henry Huntington and grew in size and reputation through oil speculation, aerospace, housing development and surf culture. Unlike Orange County’s increasingly diverse population, HB is 63 percent white, non-Hispanic.


After the election in 2016, Huntington quickly declared itself a non-sanctuary city, sued the state of California for trying to enforce low-income housing policies, and refused to embrace legalized marijuana while doing little to prevent sales of illegal weed. HB is also infamously the home of a white supremacist group known as the Rise Above Movement, which participated in the 2017 Charlottesville, Virginia rally and in the violence at the 2017 pro-Trump rally in HB.


Huntington Beach is where I live and although I know my neighbors aren’t all racist right-wing conspiracy-mongers, it’s hard to support this statement with hard evidence these days. For example, our mayor’s declaration that we’ve done a wonderful job of social distancing despite the 2,500 protesters by our pier last Friday (mostly young, standing shoulder to shoulder with unmasked angry faces.) For example, our city attorney’s insistence on filing yet another lawsuit against the state of California because (even though the protocol allows walking, swimming, and surfing from 5 am to 10 p.m.) sunbathing on the beach is forbidden.


I know the protesters are not all from HB. One of them is a relative who lives in Santa Ana, goes to every protest, never wears a mask and has been filmed kissing women on the mouth and saying “Happy COVID19.” I worry about him, but I also worry about where the protestors who do live in HB go grocery shopping because, periodically, I need to buy groceries too, for me and my husband and my 97-year-old father.


The store where I shop is small, with narrow aisles but it’s close to my home, I know where things are, and the employees are friendly. Since the pandemic, they’ve done a great job of trying to keep us safe. There’s a sign out front that says “Our customers rock” which added a little swagger to my step as I approached the store last week with my grocery list. I would like to believe that I rock, although there is little evidence of that in my mirror during these pandemic days.


Another sign at the entrance requires we wear masks. My sister-in-law made me one out of New Orleans Saint’s fabric, which I love and wear even though my glasses fog and I don’t like the idea that people can’t tell if I’m smiling or not. I was raised in the South. I’m required to smile. As I grab a cart, wearing disposable gloves, I have a sudden, irrational memory of being a small girl dressed for Easter church service, in gloves and a hat.


Inside the store, arrows taped on the floor direct me to the left and then through the produce section. The aisles are one-way. I diligently follow the arrows up and down, doubling back to pick up cereal, canned goods, and the box of white wine my father enjoys on his small patio in the afternoon. I don’t mind the extra steps. I want the exercise and I have extra time on my hands.


Except people aren’t following the directions and the one-way aisles are consistently blocked by shoppers going the wrong direction, their carts abandoned in the center of the aisle, as they talk on their phones. I wait the first time I encounter this situation. I’m blocked in. The young man finally looks at me. “Are you waiting for me?” I explain that maybe he doesn’t realize it but he’s going the wrong way.


He sighs dramatically and makes a U-turn. I can tell he isn’t smiling because his mask hangs down around his neck. In the liquor section, a young woman, going the wrong direction, blockades the aisle with her cart as she studies the choices of beer. I wait for a few minutes and then ask politely if she would mind turning her cart around so I can get past. Another eye roll. Another heavy sigh. No smile on her unmasked face. A young man chats on his phone with his mask on top of his head like a hairband, pacing up and down the narrow aisles, disregarding the arrows, not shopping at all.


All of these people are young, or maybe everyone just looks young to me these days. I hope they are being careful in how they live their lives, but I can’t help but wonder if they were protesting a few days ago at the pier. They have similarly pissed off faces, which I can see, because, as I’ve already mentioned, they’re not wearing their masks. “Excuse me,” I keep saying. I feel like a hall monitor. “You’re going the wrong way.” More sighs. More eye rolls at the annoying old person.


I stand in line to pay and watch an employee disinfect the self-check-out after each use. The line for the cashiers is marked off in six-foot increments. The cashiers are protected by plastic flapped enclosures. My favorite cashier rings me up. I ask how she’s doing, compliment her on the store’s attempts to keep us safe and add “I just wish people would follow your guidelines.”

“I know,” she says, shaking her head. She looks even more exhausted than usual. “You’d think they would have learned to follow rules in grade school.” She tells me the worst offenders are those who are only there for the Starbucks Café. They don’t like having to walk all the way across the store from the opposite door. They say it’s a huge inconvenience.


When I leave there’s a family of four, two adults, two teenagers, none of them wearing masks, leaving with Starbucks in their hands, almost defiant in the way they make no effort to keep six feet away from me. I stop and let them pass. They can’t tell that I’m not smiling. And my guess is, they don't care.


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