Supermarkets equal social clubs in virus lockdown

A man wearing a face mask and holding shopping bags looks on at Piazza Montecitorio in central Rome

Grocery shopping is usually low on the list of fun things to do. 

But as the coronavirus pandemic closes cafes, restaurants and nightclubs, the mundane act of going out to buy milk, eggs or lettuce has taken on oversized importance for many people.

The local supermarket is now a lifeline for at least one Rome resident, 56-year-old Massimo Moi. 

"It's the only time I see people in real life," said Moi, who since Italy's lockdown began earlier this month looks forward to going shopping twice a week in Rome's old quarter of Monti.

He and three or four friends arrange their trips in advance and meet up at the store. 

"We stand in line one behind the other, keeping a safe distance from each other of course, and we chat," Moi told AFP. 

Once inside, the group follows each other in a line, one metre apart, eventually meeting at the checkout, then saying goodbye. 

"Then I go home to my two cats, Odette and Anita. I love them very much, but they're not very good conversationalists."

As for video calls, "they can never replace real encounters", he said.

Local officials have noticed that food shops are now among the last remaining gathering spots in the urban deserts created by the containment measures, and they are anxious to prevent new hotbeds of contagion.

Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi has announced disinfection operations in areas that still have substantial foot traffic, including pharmacies, supermarkets and hospitals. 

Inside shops, many retailers now require customers to wear plastic gloves, provided on entering. Staff also wear them, along with masks. 

"It's almost like being in a hospital," said Moi. 

- Shop and go -

In Spain, where the pandemic has already claimed over 3,400 lives, customers are sometimes required to disinfect their hands, put on gloves and leave their personal belongings at the entrance before beginning to shop.

In Madrid, a butcher behind the counter, Celestino Lopez, lamented that "conversations with customers are now much shorter".

In Italy, some grocery stores have installed Plexiglas panels at the checkout to prevent close contact between cashiers and customers.

Still, when one comes nearly face-to-face with the cashier, it's a moment to steal a bit of sociability, Moi said. 

"The employees are really nice, and almost more welcoming than usual, especially the younger ones," Moi observed.  

"A smile, a joke become really precious in these difficult moments. I appreciate it very much." 

In Lombardy in Italy's north, the hardest-hit region of Italy with over 4,000 deaths from coronavirus, some supermarket chains have even started to take customers' temperatures with thermal scanners at the entrance.