COVID-19: My First Trip to Trader Joe's in a Mask

Who is that masked man?
Who is that masked man? Michael Roberts
In his stay-at-home order prompted by COVID-19, Governor Jared Polis designated grocery stores as essential businesses, and that makes perfect sense. But since he issued that order, recent visits to Costco and assorted grocery retailers haven't been marked by astounding displays of social distancing.

While many outlets, such as Safeway stores, are working hard to improve safety for employees and customers alike by, among other things, installing plastic shields at counters and placing marks on the floor to show how far apart patrons should stand, I'm increasingly reluctant to go shopping despite the human body's pesky need for fuel on a regular basis. After all, I turn 59 this week, which puts me on the cusp of the most vulnerable demographic — all of which helps explain why I finally did it.

I wore a mask to Trader Joe's.

And not just any mask. My mouth and snout were encased in an N95 particulate respirator — the very type of mask in exceedingly short supply in Colorado and across the country.

The person responsible for my possession of this item is my son's partner, a former rocket scientist who became concerned about the possibility of a COVID-19 outbreak in the United States months ago, unlike most federal government officials. He also understood that older people like me and my wife, who's already 59, would be at higher risk from the novel coronavirus — so he went online and ordered a box of SAS Safety Corp. masks back when doing so was as easy as clicking a few boxes.

Upon the N95s' arrival, we ribbed him about what we saw as his alarmist nature, little knowing that he would soon prove to be a modern Nostradamus.

As the seriousness of the pandemic became more obvious, we gave away most of the masks to people older than us. But we retained a few at the behest of our kids. Keeping even a small number generated a reservoir of guilt, yet, at the same time, it seemed rude and disrespectful to people who care about us not to hang on to a few, especially since our progeny had started to harangue us about not wearing them during our very occasional shopping trips. Conversations on the topic made me feel like Dr. Anthony Fauci at a presidential press conference.

When restocking our pantry could no longer be put off, my wife and I headed to the nearest Trader Joe's, which had a sign at the entrance announcing that all goods would be packed in paper bags, since reusable versions are thought to be disease carriers. In the parking lot, we secured our masks (it took several tries, since we had no idea what we were doing) and then headed inside, trying not to seem as self-conscious as we actually were.

In the preceding days, we'd heard about an increasing number of people wearing masks at places such as King Soopers and Sam's Club. But I still couldn't help wondering if my possession of an N95 would be greeted with angry glares, as if I'd worn a mink stole to a PETA fundraiser.

Instead, the looks I received were more along the lines of curiosity and shame. Because Trader Joe's generally attracts a younger clientele, my wife and I were the oldest people in the store, probably by a decade or two, and the only ones wearing masks of any kind. Folks we passed tended to glance up, then rapidly turn away. They didn't seem frightened, as if they thought we might be COVID-19 patients unwisely going into public. It was more a sense of embarrassment at seeing something so uncivil.

The one exception was an outside vendor, not a Trader Joe's employee, who was bringing new items into the store, which was well supplied in pretty much everything except, naturally, toilet paper. As he and I made eye contact, he curled his lip in an expression that could be summed up in four words: "What a fucking asshole."

As for my wife, she could barely see at all — since her glasses steamed up.

The staffer who checked us out couldn't have been more accommodating, however. In trademark Trader Joe's manner, she smilingly engaged us in conversation about the delicious slab of cheese we'd just purchased, making no apparent notice of the N95s.

It was a breath of air almost as fresh as the kind we inhaled after getting back outside and removing our masks — until the next time we need to get groceries again during the age of COVID-19.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts