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A gloved hand carries a bag full of groceries. // Photo illustration by Victoria Corkum

By Victoria Corkum

To comply with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations to protect those at higher risk for developing COVID-19, many households have hired personal shoppers.

“A lot of the people I help out are elders,” Bellingham personal shopper Kaeli VanGrimbergen said. “It’s positive to see them all smiling and being thankful for what we’re doing.”

VanGrimbergen runs a business where she offers her services as a personal shopper specifically to those who are at higher risk of COVID-19.

“I actually quit my job,” VanGrimbergen said. “I worked at a daycare maybe a month ago and we all had to wear face masks. Long story short, I got told to use a face mask that somebody else had used, so I quit.”

When doing a grocery run, VanGrimbergen emphasized the importance of safety precautions as she dons a face mask, uses hand sanitizer and maintains the social distancing recommendation of at least 6-feet.

“We always sanitize our hands,” VanGrimbergen said. “A lot of the time it’s just washing your hands and keeping your space from everybody so they feel comfortable.”

VanGrimbergen has taken precautionary measures in order to safely run her business, but amidst this she has experienced close encounters with her customers. One in particular who attempted to shake her hand.

“He put out his hand and I kind of just looked at his hand and looked up at him and I was like, ‘What’s the point in that if you’re having me go to the store for you?’” VanGrimbergen said.

During this pandemic the role of the personal shopper, and in VanGrimbergen’s case, a community supporter, is filled with a variety of tricky yet crucial ethical predicaments, said Neal Tognazzini, a professor of ethics at Western.

“It seems ideal, they’re helping people,” Tognazzini said. “They do have to make a complicated calculation about the pros and cons, about the risks that they’re exposing themselves to and the help they’re giving to other people. That’s the calculation we’re all having to make when we decide to go out anywhere.”

Besides the element of calculated risk, personal shoppers also face a decision that requires them to look at their individual choices and weigh it with the impact they will have on the larger community, Tognazzini said.

“The person who is shopping, they really want to help particular individuals who are at high risk and would otherwise not be able to have the groceries they need, not just helping individuals but helping a need in the larger community,” Tognazzini said.

As a community member in need, Bellingham resident Roxanne Melland said she is grateful for the work that personal shoppers have done for her.

“I am what they call high-risk because I’m over 70,” Melland said. “We’re not supposed to be going to places with a lot of people so I figured I’d rather be safe than sorry. I’d stay home and get somebody to do my shopping.”

Melland said she has not been to a grocery store since March 15 due to the work of personal shoppers like VanGrimbergen.

“I don’t know what I would do without personal shoppers to help me at this point,” Melland said. 

“They are so fast. I think people are more than glad to have help because as you get older you just don’t want to take a chance. My family is all in California so I’m glad I have personal shoppers around here.”

Being a personal shopper is more than a way to make a living. VanGrimbergen said it allows her to offer support and encouragement to those who need it most while passing on good deeds from her past.

“Five years ago my best friend killed herself,” VanGrimbergen said. “I’m a part of this group called Rory’s Way. Her mom always instilled in us after [Rory] died, ‘She is kind, caring and compassionate, so pay it forward.’”

She said seeing her clients smile because they know that she’s available to offer them support is one of her favorite parts of the job.

Melland said personal shoppers have brought her peace during times of fear and uncertainty.

“They just made me relax because I knew they would be there when I needed things,” Melland said. “I felt safe with them and they were good. They brought the right stuff, I like organic and they made sure I got organic. I don’t know how they found it all but they did, mind boggling.”

VanGrimbergen said she is determined to persist and continue her business during the pandemic.

“I think living in fear is not a great thing,” VanGrimbergen said. “I agree with being safe but I’m not going to live in fear.”


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