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OLD ORCHARD BEACH, Maine — At midnight after long work days as an integral part of Maine’s response to the new coronavirus, Joan Gordon has been logging on to her computer in bids to secure a valuable reservation.
That is a spot in the Hannaford To-Go service. Gordon works long days and wants to stay out of stores because of her job. She wants to protect her 97-year-old father, whom she also buys groceries for. But the pickup program has been scaled back and overwhelmed due to the virus.
New reservations become available at midnight. They are gone in seconds. After a few times trying programs at Hannaford and Shaw’s, Gordon recruited members of her family to hold spots. Her sister in San Diego and son in Colorado — both in earlier time zones — would boost her chances of getting a reservation. After no success, she called a Hannaford agent.
“He explained to me that they posted the delivery slots at midnight, but he said somehow in seconds they were gone,” Gordon said. “And he said, ‘Just keep trying.’”
Gordon, of Old Orchard Beach, is typically not up at midnight. She is a molecular biologist at the Maine Molecular Quality Control Institute in Saco, where she makes controls for kits that test for respiratory issues other than the coronavirus. That helps doctors rule out the virus in symptomatic people.
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“If this patient has the flu, they probably don’t have the coronavirus,” Gordon said. “It’s kind of an over-the-counter thing and it helps relieve everybody’s anxiety.”
Gordon’s lab is the only facility of its kind in the state. Demand has skyrocketed over the last month, she said, as it also develops controls for coronavirus tests that are set to become available in the next six weeks. At the same time, the institute is under increased stress.
“There’s the fear that one of us is going to get sick and all of our co-workers are going to get sick,” Gordon said. “Some people are very fearful — rightfully — and they’ll just not come to work.”
That brings Gordon to her grocery problem. She doesn’t blame Hannaford for the design of the To-Go lottery. She said she “empathizes” with it and other supermarkets.
After briefly suspending the program, Hannaford recently redesigned its To-Go services — in which an associate bags items customers order online for curbside pickup — after initial demand during the coronavirus outstripped capacity. Customers are now able to reserve pick-up times at hourly intervals for two days in advance. A new day of times becomes available at midnight.
But that lottery system has unintended consequences that may make it more difficult for older people, those like Gordon who work in essential jobs and the technologically unsavvy to use services that help them obtain groceries more safely.
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In a statement, a Hannaford spokesperson said the chain has seen “unprecedented demand” for the services as well as in-store shopping. Hannaford apologized for any “inconvenience customers may experience” and added that it is “actively pursuing” hiring additional staff to improve services.
Hannaford’s intention is likely not to affect older customers, said Nicole Bradick, the CEO of Theory and Principle, a Portland-based legal technology product design firm. But she said there could be a simple fix if that is the case — moving the roll-out time to an earlier point in the day.
“If there’s a causal relationship between the time that those roll out and the ability for elderly people to get their groceries, they can fix that by changing the time that those get released,” Bradick said. “But I don’t know that you [can] draw that direct line.”
Midnight on Friday, Joan finally secured a reservation through her son in Colorado at the Hannaford in Scarborough. She was delighted, though part of her felt bad for taking one of precious few slots from someone who may need it more.
“Hannaford is doing the best they can,” she said. But “everybody needs groceries.”
Watch: What older adults need to know about COVID-19