Rick Gowell stocks fruit and vegetables with his employee, Caitlin Allen, at his store, Gowell’s Shop ‘n Save on March 23 in Litchfield. Gowell told any employee who was at high risk of complications from the coronavirus to stay home and told others to work only if they wanted to during the pandemic. “These people are amazing,” Gowell said of his workers. “They are on the front lines to feed people.” Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

LITCHFIELD — When the coronavirus outbreak started affecting Maine, Rick Gowell, owner of Gowell’s Shop ‘n Save stores in Litchfield and Greene, offered his employees the opportunity to leave work.

Caitlin Allen, 27, of Bowdoin, works at the Litchfield location and was one of many that decided to head back to work. She said she felt she should “definitely” go back to work instead of stay home.

“Everyone’s doing their part,” Allen said. “We’re working well as a team and picking up shifts (if needed).”

Rick Gowell stacks cases of water with his employee, Caitlin Allen, at his Litchfield store, Gowell’s Shop ‘n Save, on March 23. Gowell told any employee who was at high risk of complications from the coronavirus to stay home and told others to work only if they wanted to during the pandemic. The majority continue to work. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced Wednesday that the state has 344 total cases of coronavirus and seven people have died. Last week, the Portland Press Herald reported that Hannaford customers in Scarborough were greeted with large signs asking them to practice social distancing and other notices limiting 17 different items, including eggs, water, toilet paper, hand sanitizer and baby wipes.

Of Gowell’s 100 employees, only about 10 decided to stay home, some with autoimmune or other medical conditions. The ones that keep coming to work, Gowell said, are like “first responders.”

“The employees are really on the front lines of this,” he said. “While other people get to shelter in place, they’re out there in public.”

Tom Couture, manager of Gowell’s in Greene, said work is an “opportunity to keep busy” during the outbreak and keep an income flowing in.

“If they had the choice, I think most people would decide to work than not work,” he said. “I have bills; the more money I can make, the happier I am.”

Couture said the Greene store doubled its business during the beginning stages of the outbreak, but has had trouble keeping items like soup, toilet paper and flour on the shelves. Missing items has caused some customers to become annoyed, he said, even though the store has little control over the increased demand for those items.

“The tensions are high with everyone,” Couture said. “Most people are taking it really well. There’s always a few that think (some things) are our fault.”

Allen said some customers have been “not-so-friendly” during their shopping outings, but the store’s regular customers have been a pleasure with which to work.

“We have amazing regular customers and everyone’s been really good,” she said.  “They thank us constantly for being open.”

Gowell said he’s not worried about “dollars and cents” during the outbreak, rather the health and safety of his employees — and the store being open to serve the community, even if it means only breaking even.

“The employees are rolling with the punches,” he said. “I’m really proud of the employees; we can’t do it alone and they’re making it happen for the community.”

Couture said the store changed its hours, opening at 7 a.m. to give elderly shoppers an opportunity to do their shopping without many others in the store. That change has gone over well, he said.

“A lot of (elderly) people are thanking us for giving them the opportunity to get in first,” Couture said.

Rick Gowell replenishes the shelves at his store, Gowell’s Shop ‘n Save in Litchfield, on March 23. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy Buy this Photo

Gowell urged members of the public to send only one member of the household out to do shopping, as statewide limits to the number of people simultaneously in stores will go into effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday. Along with limiting patrons, he has been following Hannaford’s lead with cleaning supplies for carts being available and following guidelines from the National Grocers Association.

Toilet paper, paper towels, bottled water and eggs are flying off of the shelves at both locations, Gowell said.

Allen warned customers against hoarding products for the better interest of the community.

“Don’t go overboard and buy everything,” she said. “Save stuff for other people and be considerate. Ask elderly people if they need anything.”

Don Lachance, co-owner of Boynton’s Market in Hallowell, said his store’s three employees are still coming to work, but the outbreak may affect the store’s bottom line so much that it may close. He said he would understand if employees did not want to work if they felt unsafe.

Lachance said it’s “pretty gratifying” to own a store during the outbreak because he believes it’s helping the community.

“(Employees) know they’re helping people in town,” he said. “That’s pretty gratifying to know that we’re appreciated.”


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