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Front line businesses back to work

Vaia Papadopoulos prepares to deliver an order of steak and eggs at the re-opened Saratoga Family Restaurant in Edmonton. Photo: Gary Poignant

Vaia Papadopoulos is smiling behind her mask as she serves customers at Edmonton's Saratoga Family Restaurant.

 "People are really glad that we're open again," said the diner's manager, who stayed in touch with several regulars while the eatery was closed from mid-March until June.

Wearing a mask has been the most difficult part of the COVID-19 regulations to adjust to, said Papadopoulos.

"Sometimes it feels restrictive. If you get a little light-headed, you just take a quick break. But I really enjoy coming to work again," said Papadopoulos, one of seven staffers working at the diner - down from the pre-pandemic total of 14. "Business was slow but steady at first, and people have been happy to see us back."

Saratoga, first opened in 1958 and owned by the Papadopoulos family since 1999, didn't seek financial assistance from the federal government during the shutdown.

About 265 km south on Highway 2, the pandemic created the opposite effect for the front-line workers at the Airdrie Sobeys.

"Our world was turned upside down," said owner/operator Don Pettem, who says it's been the biggest challenge he has faced in 45 years in the grocery business.

"Everyone has stepped up," said Pettem, pointing out the 110 full and part-time staff "have really supported each other. We are a team." Pettem said the staff moved quickly in March to make the necessary changes to ensure the store was safe for workers and customers.

"The staff are the heroes, but customers have been supportive of the changes too.They realize this is a new normal for the shopper," said Pettem, adding that shopping habits have changed, with people coming in just once a week for a bigger order, rather than stopping in more frequently.

 Masks are mandatory for staff in certain areas of the store - like the entrance. Pettem doesn't wear a mask "because I can maintain social distancing." 

Even though the province has relaxed COVID-19 regulations, protocol at the Airdrie Sobeys have not changed, said Pettem. The store's 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. hour remains dedicated to seniors and shoppers with mobility issues.

Pettem said there have been a few minor incidents with customers complaining about social distancing and aisle direction, but nothing significant.

 He said he sees only positives coming from the adversity over the past three months.

"The harmony that is happening between the customers and our employees is so rewarding," said Pettem. "And there have been special moments."

"A mother and her two young daughters were all dressed up, playing music and dancing out front.They were saying thank you to Sobeys Airdrie. It brought some of our staff to tears."