COVID-19 story by Austin Moule, 2020

Austin Moule describes his experience working at a grocery store in Madison during the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020. He recounts making face masks at home to share with coworkers and friends, and shares his concerns about having depleted his sick leave hours in order to make sure symptoms he experienced early in the Safer at Home order were not COVID-19-related. Austin talks about the ebb and flow of grocery store work during a pandemic; moments of busyness interspersed with slow periods due to issues in the supply chain.

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  • Index
    [00:00:00] - Start of Recording
    [00:00:30] - Can you just tell us your safer-at-home COVID-19 story?
    [00:06:30] - You mentioned you were making masks. How did that get started?
    [00:08:22] - Are there any particular stories, images or moments from the past few weeks that really stand out?
    [00:09:56] - Is there anything else that we didn’t get a chance to touch on that you‘d like to talk about?


    Interviewer: All right. Hello, everybody. My name is Andres Torres. Today is Monday, April 20, 2020. And I am here with the COVID-19 Stories from a Distance project and I will let the narrator introduce themselves right now.

    Austin Moule: Hi, I’m Au—Austin Moule.

    Interviewer: Hi, Austin.

    Austin Moule: This is my COVID story.

    Interviewer: Okay, so yeah, can you just tell us your safer-at-home COVID-19 story?

    Austin Moule: Yeah, I’ve been kind of not at home a lot because I work at a grocery store. Though I have missed a handful of days due to just suspicious illness and trying to be, do the right thing and stay home. But while I’m at home I’ve got three animals. They keep us pretty busy.

    And we just actually got a new sewing machine, something I’ve, I’m a—painter and I just kind of like to make things. And so, I have always wanted to sew and this seemed like a good excuse to get a machine and learn how to make some masks to give out to people at work and to family members. So, that’s been the rotation of my life, is go to work and maybe make a mask or two in the morning or evening. And relax on the days off and we’ve been going on a lot of long walks that’s for sure (laughs). Like, seemingly everybody else (laughs).

    But yeah, I would say, at work it has been an interesting swing of people either—like the level of how serious[ly] people are taking it, or maybe how informed they are. There’s a whole range of people being really, really scared and not coming to work and then there’s people who have been there every day, not wanting to wear masks, really wanting to downplay it and, you know, play the “everybody’s crazy” card. So, that’s kind of a big swing. I would say myself falls a little more on the crazy card, I’d been wearing—not the earliest to wear masks but I wore a mask for, basically since March sixteenth, seventeenth?

    But yeah, it’s unfortunate and I just, I have to share this unfortunate situation right now of not having any sick leave to watch after colds, or monitor symptoms if they come up, see if I need a COVID test. Because I did not use my two week COVID-19 sick leave that was recommended by—federally, I guess—I don’t know if I’m using the right terms but—because I didn’t use it for two consecutive weeks. I came back to work on the sixth day it actually came out of my personal sick leave. Which leaves me with 1.6 hours of sick leave at this point in time so, I sort of feel a little bit, you know, without options there.

    I will say there [are] a lot of people—like, there are times at work where we’re crazy busy and, you know, I feel like I’m doing the right thing and I’m there and I’m putting stuff on the shelves and helping people get their groceries and getting them out. Then other times because of the supply issues there’s ten people walking around trying to find work to do. It’s really kind of all or nothing at work. It’s either we’re meandering around like a bunch of lost puppies, wondering—I, I don’t know what everybody else is thinking but I’m wondering why we’re there in that case. And then other times where it’s like, gosh, I wish we had a couple more people to do this and that’s just the nature of it right now. It’s a little bit unpredictable as to how each day is going to go.

    And, you know, [you] see the trends of how customers are taking—I feel that last week was a little bit more, like, everybody wearing masks, not as many people shopping. This week, maybe a little less people were wearing masks, saw a few families come in with multiple people, so, yeah. That’s—people seem to be letting (laughs), letting their guard down maybe a little bit which makes me as a grocery worker a little nervous. It just increases my likelihood of contracting it and, you know, we’re trying to plan for Alyssa’s graduation at this point and her parents wanted to take a trip, either here or have us meet them or somewhere. But I feel like I am too much of a risk to go near anybody right now. I could contract at any moment, if I haven’t already, and get them sick. And who knows if they’re going to have a good or bad time with it? It’s hard to tell them, “No, we don’t want you to come here and buy us a nice meal and celebrate with us.” But I think, you know, I strongly believe that, that’s how I want to handle that situation to be safe than sorry. No. Last thing I would want to do is unintentionally infect them and then them be reckless and go see some of their friends and one of their friends die or their grandparents or anybody, you know. It’s like, it’s a chain reaction, so I don’t know. I think a lot about that a lot definitely, as a grocery worker.

    I wanted to go skate with my friend. I realized, no, probably shouldn’t do that. And I texted him and said, you know, we got to hold off a little longer, even if we’re not going to be like high-fiving and, you know, hugging. I am probably not the right person—if I was at home for the last month and not seeing anybody I’d feel a little different but I go out and I can’t—there’s no social distance in a grocery store, not all the time. There’s several times a day when I’[ve] got four people within ten square feet of me and that’s just how it goes. You just can’t avoid it at all times in a grocery store in the aisles and the break rooms are tiny and the place where you kind of clock in.

    Interviewer: You mentioned you were making masks. How did that get started?

    Austin Moule: So we had an old machine and we have tried over the years, like the last couple years, to pull it out and it’s always an hour of getting it to sew one good line and then it messing up. It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do, is learn how to sew. And somebody at work actually started making them and made a ton of them and the majority of people at work are still using those masks that Katie, our manager, made.

    But I wanted to also just help out and I made kind of a fancy one for her and I’ve been making them to take, take a little time. It’s been a convenient way to do something that I personally wanted to do. I wanted to learn how to sew and it feels, like a great excuse for that and [I could] sidetrack, like distract myself by making these. I was making them for all of my family so I was trying to pick designs and color schemes that I thought they’d like.

    It’s been something to kind of keep me, keep your hands moving, without having painting in my life like I normally would. I haven’t felt motivated to paint but I have wanted to make things and so this felt to me like the right way to exercise that desire to be creative. So, not necessarily full-on, mass-production mode but I have probably made about thirty, thirty or so now. Probably about thirty-two masks if I counted them up. And I have mailed them off to some people around the country and given away to some people at work. So, it’s been something to keep busy and feel like you’re [making] a little contribution. I only have so much time to do it anyway, working forty hours a week most weeks, so—

    Interviewer: Are there any particular stories, images or moments from the past few weeks that really stand out, for whatever reason?

    Austin Moule: Yeah, I think that one—unfortunately the things that stand out most are negative because they’re the things that maybe infuriate or anger you, you know, just images of the president obviously and things that he said, can’t forget that. Those just stick out like a sore thumb in your memory. Things that happen at work but I will say there have been so many sweet programs on television that have brought me to tears lately, or things that kind of bring, bring the humanity out of you in a very profound way. I’ve cried a few times lately (laughs). So nothing really in particular but I would say there are—everything’s heightened and maybe in a month or so I’ll be able to pinpoint those moments more directly right now but—

    Interviewer: Yeah.

    Austin Moule: There’s just, yeah—

    Interviewer: Yeah, well thanks—

    Austin Moule: (talking at same time) It’s his birthday today, by the way. This is, this is Willy. He’s our cat. He’s one of two cats and a dog that we have. He’s three. He just turned three today.

    Interviewer: Happy birthday, Willy.

    Austin Moule: Thank you (laugh).

    Interviewer: Well Austin, is there anything else that we didn’t get a chance to touch on that you‘d like to talk about, or—?

    Austin Moule: No, not [in] particular. I would say, I don’t know about everybody else but it’s definitely hard, I have this certain pang of guilt for not reaching out to everybody I know around the country. And, that’s like something that weighs on my mind a little bit. I haven’t talked to Marissa and Gabe. I was thinking that I might make them some fancy masks and send them, send them over something that’s (laughs) but—

    Interviewer: Marissa and Gabe—

    Austin Moule: Yeah—

    Interviewer: —are friends?

    Austin Moule: Yeah, they’re friends who live in New York City actually right now. I have another friend, Chet, who lives in, in New York City and a friend who lives in Louisiana. In New Orleans. And so—

    Interviewer: Yeah those—(unintelligible)

    Austin Moule: (talking at same time) —Call him. He sent me a text, a text over Instagram recently, like this morning, should give him a call. But, yeah.

    Interviewer: Yeah. Well, I would like to thank you for sharing your story with us. It was really nice to hear kind of an insider working at a grocery store, at a grocery store and what they have to say. So, thanks a lot for that, Austin.

    Austin: Thanks for having me.

    Interviewer: All right.