by Todd Habiger
SENECA — At first glance, it may seem like a typical spring day at Ray’s Apple Market here. Customers move about the store, shopping for groceries and other necessities.
But it’s on closer inspection that one notices the little differences: people in protective masks, new sneeze guards at the checkout and hand sanitizer — lots of hand sanitizer — throughout the store. This is the year of coronavirus and things have changed.
Ray’s Apple Market is, in many ways, a vital hub in Seneca. The next nearest grocery store is 30 minutes away. For this small-town store, keeping products stocked throughout the pandemic helps keep its community safe.
People don’t have to leave town to seek items elsewhere.
But it’s not been easy.
Donna Miller, grocery manager at Ray’s and parishioner at Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in Seneca, said the pandemic has limited what items are available and how many items the store can get. As a result, Ray’s has had to prioritize what products are the most vital and what they can do with less of.
The pandemic has caused the store to get creative, Miller said.
“What we did is look at other sources to obtain the stuff we needed here in the store,” she said. “We have done that quite a bit and not just relied on our warehouse in Kansas City.”
Miller said that Ray’s corporate headquarters has helped them identify other vendors to help keep the store stocked. Initially, the store was low on the usual items: toilet paper, hand sanitizer and bread.
As a result, the store had to put limits on how many of those items customers could buy.
Terry Nordhus, pricing coordinator at Ray’s and also a member of Sts. Peter and Paul, said that keeping customers feeling safe has been a top priority for the store.
“We sanitize almost hourly,” she said. “We have hand sanitizer at the check stand. We have masks for the people if they want to wear them. We have sneeze guards at the check stand now.”
Nordhus said that she’s noticed people have changed their buying habits just a little.
“I would say people are buying more at this time because they don’t know what will happen next,” she said. “They are stocking up a little more than they usually do.”
As an “essential business,” Ray’s has stayed open even as “stay at home” orders closed other businesses statewide.
So far, there has been only one confirmed case of coronavirus in Nemaha County, where Seneca lies. So, Miller and Nordhus don’t need to worry much about their own safety.
“In this community, most people are taking all the precautions that they possibly can,” Miller said. “For the most part, I think we have all adapted pretty well.”
“I don’t worry about my health,” said Nordhus. “There are about six of us here where the biggest thing we have going against us is our age.
“But we still come to work every day.”
While the two women’s professional lives have required adjustments, so, too, have their faith lives.
With no Sunday Mass, they have relied on livestreams from the church to sustain them.
“Our church here in Seneca has done a fantastic job in doing that and making sure that we have services that are broadcast to our local TV,” said Miller. “We have lectors, servers, musicians — you couldn’t ask for a better group.”
The parish, led by pastor Father Arul Carasala, offers livestreamed Masses daily. In an effort to keep the children of the parish engaged, he held a coloring contest of the Divine Mercy and posted the children’s photos on the parish Facebook page.
Nordhus, who is an organist for the parish, praised Father Carasala for his efforts even as she finds the Masses a surreal experience when she’s there playing the organ.
“It’s very weird, because you look downstairs and there is no one there,” Nordhus said. “Father [Carasala] says the prayers and there are just a few of us there to answer the prayers.”
For Miller, the coronavirus pandemic has only served to strengthen her faith and her relationship with God.
“When we go through a crisis like this, this is the time that we need to lean on the church and on God,” she said. “I have people ask me on a daily basis, ‘How are you doing, how are you handling all of this?’
“I just tell them that I thank God every day that I have my health, I have my job and I have my family.”