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Senior shopping hours come with their own anxiety

People in line kept their social distance as they waited for the Wegmans grocery store to open at 7 a.m.
People in line kept their social distance as they waited for the Wegmans grocery store to open at 7 a.m.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

It was 6:45 a.m., the sun was barely up, and there were no cars on the street except for mine and a Jaguar driving right on my tail.

I stopped at a stop sign, taking an extra second or two to adjust my rubber gloves.

But it was a second or two too long for the testy Jaguar driver who pulled out into the oncoming traffic lane, zipped around me, and roared down the street. It all happened so fast I had to swerve to miss him.

Who was that un-masked man? And where was he going when everyone’s quarantined?

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The same place I was, as it turned out — senior shopping hour at Wegmans which starts at 7 a.m. Apparently he needed to get a jump on the goods before . . . well, before what? Before the other seniors looted the store? Before Wegmans ran out of food at 7:05?

Welcome to the hour mandated by the state to make life safer and less stressful for older people.

There’s been a lot of ink spilled about panic shopping — the hoarding of toilet paper and sanitizer, the frantic hunt for bottled water. But in the wee morning hours when most people are still asleep, there’s another kind of crisis shopping taking place.

This is the period grocery stores set aside for adults 60 and over, a requirement imposed in March by the state. (Some stores also extend it to other at-risk groups, including those with disabilities or weakened immune systems.)

It’s intended to limit potential exposure to the coronavirus for the most vulnerable, but it has other benefits too, as I learned from visiting eight grocery stores in five local communities. The stores are quiet, and workers seem extraordinarily considerate and kind. The goods haven’t yet been picked over — there’s toilet paper galore, and twice I even scored disinfecting wipes.

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But this special hour comes with its own anxiety and occasionally even drama, such as the skirmish on a recent Thursday morning at Market Basket in Waltham.

There the senior hour is between 6 and 7. Maybe it was the early rising that unsettled one particular shopper, or being made to wait outside in the chilly darkness in a queue so long — at least 60 people — it wound around the building. Or the glitch with social distancing: The store had taped blue X’s at 6-foot intervals on the sidewalk to indicate where shoppers should stand, but shoppers bunched together anyway.

By the time the woman made it through the door, she’d clearly had it.

“Why aren’t you wearing a mask?” she screamed at a young employee unpacking boxes.

“I don’t even know you,” he snapped. “I’ve only been here 10 minutes, and I haven’t had a chance to put it on yet.”

“This is not,” she hollered, “how I want to die.”

Despite the melodrama, I sympathized. All shoppers are worn down and snappish these days despite labor-intensive, even heroic, efforts by supermarket staff to keep people safe while staying safe themselves.

Shopping is scary for everyone, with potential virus carriers at every turn and too many social distancing flouters. And many items are scarce: Produce is patchy, yeast has been missing for weeks, hot dogs are on-and-off, hand sanitizer is . . . nowhere. There’s no predictability anymore, as favored items are constantly shifting and disappearing. It could be bananas one week, SkinnyPop Popcorn the next.

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For older people or anyone whose health is compromised, these circumstances are more difficult. They have only an hour to get it all done before the hordes descend and can’t readily make a second trip or go elsewhere to pick up everything they need. Many people over 60 feel all the more vulnerable when they see workers not wearing face masks.

Daphne Romanoff, 60, of Newton said she went to Wegmans in Chestnut Hill at senior hour and all the seniors were wearing masks, but several Wegmans staff and vendors stocking the shelves were not.

“Wegmans sets up senior shopping allegedly because there will be less people there and we’re supposedly in a higher risk category,” she said. "So we show up wearing masks and the staff doesn’t?“

A Wegmans spokesman declined to comment.

Then there are the apparent under-60 libertarians — shopping early, even if they appear not to be seniors.

“I’m 60!” a woman in a fleece jacket and jeans hollered to no one — in case anyone was sizing her up — while waiting in line at a recent Newton Whole Foods senior hour.

A sign in the window stated the store opened early for “customers who are 60 and older,” and the doorway was guarded by a burly man functioning as bouncer.

“This is for over 60s,” the man called out to a 40-ish woman taking her place in line.

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“She ignored you,” I said. “Have you seen that happen before?”

“Yup,” he said. “There’s only so much I can do. I’m not a cop.”

It’s hard to know how common this is, and whether younger people are impostors trying to pull a fast one (which is not hard to do with a mask on), have a health condition they’d rather not disclose, or are just oblivious. But it appears that some people interpret “over 60” as merely a guideline. One healthy 59-year-old told me she’s comfortable shopping at senior hour because she’s “almost 60.”

None of this makes actual seniors happy.

“We called Whole Foods Market in Fresh Pond, Cambridge, twice Saturday, and were told that the first hour, from 8 to 9, would be reserved for elders,” Charles Fried said in an e-mail to The Boston Globe. “My wife, age 80, went there at 8 Sunday morning and once inside found it crowded with shoppers of all ages and a greeter welcoming all. This [is] disgraceful.”

He added: “There were what I would call contract shoppers filling orders to be delivered. And they were definitely not 60-plus.”

A Whole Foods spokesman responded by e-mail that the hour before the store opens to the general public is open to those 60 and older, with disabilities, and at high risk, as defined by the CDC.

“The only workers in the store [at that hour] are our Team Members and Prime Now shoppers that are there to serve our customers."

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Harvey Cotton of Boston was pleased to find himself carded, at age 60, at Whole Foods in South Boston. He was less pleased when he got inside and noticed several young Amazon Prime workers shopping for customers who’d placed orders. “I get it, the store is less crowded, and they’re trying to fulfill all these orders,” he said. “But the theory behind establishing ‘over 60’ hours is to keep a more vulnerable population safer. If you can’t enforce that in a meaningful way, it kind of defeats the purpose.”

Al Lewis of Newton, 64, was disappointed not to be carded at a Stop & Shop in Newton, where he arrived on his bike. “Someone should have been checking; most 64-year-olds don’t show up in bike shorts,” said Lewis. “And there were people there at least as questionable-looking as I was. I gotta tell you, no one is getting their hair colored these days, and theirs was natural.”

Linda Matchan can be reached at lindamatchan@gmail.com.