Last week, photographer Sinna Nasseri was at Grace’s Marketplace, an upscale local market on New York’s Upper East Side. Behind the counter, 62-year-old Vilma Valdivieso exchanged her rubber gloves for a fresh pair, as she did between each customer, to avoid the possibility of cross-contamination. But the next woman who reached the front of the line immediately asked, “Are your hands clean?”

“I could see she was nearly in tears,” says Nasseri, who spent time in several grocery stores and food vendors in Manhattan and Brooklyn. After Valdivieso’s reassurances, the customer immediately calmed down, appeased; still, the exchange hung in the air. That’s just how the city feels these days. “You can tell people don’t mean to be like that—they’re just scared,” she said.

The grocery workers Nasseri spoke with know their roles have changed dramatically, with the current public health crisis turning them into a lifeline for families—and possibly the only other person a customer might talk to all day, or all week. Their jobs have grown to include absorbing and defraying the city’s tension; smiling, politely assisting. “Yesterday I had a situation,” Westside Market’s Gabriela Maldonado, 30, told Nasseri. “An elderly woman refused to go into the store, she did not want to go. So I had to come out, take her order, pick the stuff out, pack it and bring it right outside to her, because she refused to go in. And I understand.”

Layne Rawlings, 24, lives in Murray Hill and works at East Village Organic.

“A lot of our customers are older and they’ve been coming [here] for years. Some of them maybe aren’t as excited or willing to comply with [new safety] practices. For example, we’re trying to get people to space out in line. We have x’s on the floor, and these people who’ve been shopping here forever don’t want to comply with the x’s on the floor.”

Photographed by Sinna Nasseri

Viviana Robles, 22, from the Bronx, is a cashier at Westside Market in the East Village.

“My mom is very weak and diabetic. I like hugging her and all that…but I try not to be that lovable with her [right now]. I say ‘I love you,’ but I could have some of the bacteria on my clothing, so, just in case, I haven’t been hugging as much.”

“I do sometimes think about not coming in [to work], but someone else could take my spot here.”

Photographed by Sinna Nasseri

Destiny Rivera, 28, lives in East Harlem and works at Gourmet Garage on the Upper West Side.

Photographed by Sinna Nasseri

Photographed by Sinna Nasseri

Now among the city’s most crucial personnel, grocery workers are nevertheless exposed to new dangers. Thanks to the global pandemic of COVID-19, which is tightening its grip on New York, we’re being encouraged to keep our distance from each other, even family and friends. In Governor Andrew Cuomo’s PAUSE order of March 22, gatherings of any size were banned. So-called non-essential workers directed to stay at home unless absolutely necessary—leaving workers from the health care, manufacturing, infrastructure sectors to continue with their daily grind. Grocery stores, along with pharmacies, farmer’s markets, hardware stores, and a few other exceptions, are considered essential retail.

Of all essential employees, the ones who bag your groceries at the store—taking your change, directing you to the condiment aisle—are the ones you’re mostly likely to see. Yet these establishments are often crowded, with little regulation of how many people are coming in at a time. “These women are really at risk,” says Nasseri, who wore a mask and kept his distance during the shoot, often capturing images often through windows or in reflections.

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