One can call it the perfect example of social distancing. There is no shopkeeper to man the counter. On display, there are loaves of bread and a placard asking customers to deposit Rs.30 for each loaf into a small container. And the business has been progressing without a hassle.
Vignesh, who runs the bakery at Rathnapuri in Tamil Nadu’s Coimbatore, chose this method for two reasons – his shop assistants could not turn up due to the lockdown, leaving him alone to man the oven at the back. Second, this method of self-service reduced human interaction, which is necessary in these times of social distancing.
“Most of the customers deposit the exact change and pick up the bread. Those without any money just take the bread and leave. And that is fine as long my bead can satiate hungry stomachs. During the initial days of the lockdown, my bread was the only food item available for nearby residents as many grocery shops were closed,” explained Vignesh, who did not hike the price of the bread despite the high demand. He churns out at least five hundred loaves a day, all of which are bought or picked up.
Unlike the bread shop in Coimbatore, examples of social distancing at shops across Tamil Nadu have been a mixed bag. Most state run ration shops, which started distributing rations from April 1, enforced strict distancing with clearly marked circles or boxes on the ground. Similarly, the vegetable markets shifted to playgrounds with earmarked distancing boxes after they witnessed overcrowding in their regular locations.
But the real challenge faced by the authorities came at the meat markets last weekend. Since most households eat some sort of meat at the weekend, buyers made a beeline to these markets last Saturday and Sunday, throwing all physical distancing norms to the wind. “It was impossible to enforce any kind of order as people jostled with one another to buy their requirement. We had to seal off the entire Marina Loop Road after a huge rush of people to the fish market there,” admitted G. Prakash, the Chennai Corporation Commissioner.
Similar crowds were witnessed across meat markets in the state, nullifying all efforts to maintain social distancing. Now, the authorities have warned the sellers that unless they enforce social distancing before their shops, they would close down the shops on Sunday.
To prevent crowding at markets, vegetables are sold in pre-packed bags at a fixed price. Every customer gets one bag – which contains an assortment of vegetables – so there is no waiting or crowding. “Since these markets have been shifted to playgrounds with clearly marked boxes for customers, everyone maintains a safe distance,” observed Mageshwari Ravikumar, Thiruvallur district collector.
This pre-packed vegetable bag concept has been tweaked in Madurai town, where vegetable vendors take them in vans and sell them at a fixed price at various housing colonies. Here again, local welfare associations make sure that social distancing is maintained. “As every household is assured of regular vegetable supply, there is no anxious rush. People wait for their turn,” observed Bhimsingh, secretary of a volunteer group at Narimedu, Madurai.