CAMDEN, NJ — Jose Placencia, 27, works the register at Litwin Food Market in Camden and the past month has been anything but normal. 

Floor markers delineating where shoppers should stand. A counter at the front door limiting customer capacity. Face masks no longer just a suggestion. 

As the nephew of the Elm Street market’s owner, Placencia said he has been privy to behind the scenes too.

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“Employees became frightened as the pandemic went on. Less and less started coming in and that meant more for the owners and other staff to take on,” he told TAPinto Camden. 

After some deliberation and with staff starting to wane over fears of contracting the virus, the Camden market closed its doors on April 10. In the interim, floors were refurbished, the interior was reorganized and staff had the chance to self-quarantine at their homes without fear of losing employment.

To help mark their re-opening this week, Camden Lutheran Housing, Inc. (CLHI) with help from the New Jersey Pandemic Relief Fund and The Food Trust, is helping to hand out $1,000 worth of food vouchers to neighborhood shoppers. 

“I think it’s really important for nonprofits to support small businesses the best we can,” Jessica Franzini, director of CLHI, said in a phone interview. “For us in North Camden, Litwin Market is essential for providing hot food, fresh veggies and also supplies like toilet paper. So we were happy to partner with them to help provide food security for North Camden during this time.”

CLHI will begin distributing the vouchers this week, and Franzini said the organization will continue pushing for more money to help with relief efforts. 

The power of the corner store is especially prevalent in Camden, where major supermarket brands are not a walk but a drive away in Cherry Hill or elsewhere. 

Placencia said Litwin Market took advantage during the closure not only to sanitize the sales floor, but gather additional personal protective equipment (PPE) and other supplies for its workers. However, hand sanitizer continues to be hard to access in bulk.

“Things have only gotten worse since we initially closed down, and we know a lot of people around here depend on us,” he said. “There’s not many businesses around here still open at this point."

Ana Ramos, senior project manager for The Food Trust based in Philadelphia, says COVID-19 has become an opportunity to highlight inequities when it comes to food access in certain communities. 

“All of the struggles we know people face in Camden and Philly have been exacerbated by the pandemic,” Ramos said. “This voucher program is not a long-term solution. It is a way to respond now to the issues people are facing.”

Another issue faced by cornerstones in the city has been protecting its employees from becoming sick.

Parkside Business & Community in Partnership (PBCIP) has unrolled a plethora of services for residents, including the launch of the “Show Your Heart 6 Feet Apart” campaign.

The initiative has included handing out posters to Camden businesses vowing to properly protect staff, recognize the city's 8 p.m. curfew, as well as properly restock and disinfect goods for their clients. 

“Customers are scared to come outside because of COVID-19, and just the fact we’ve kept the business open is not enough,” said Ahmed El Sayed of Mario’s Pizza after his business joined the campaign. “We need to reassure them we’re taking the proper steps to be safe.”

In the past month or so, PBCIP has also issued flyers with safety protocols to residents and continued to host virtual meetings to inform the public of policy changes that affect them.

Bridget Phifer, Executive Director of PBCIP, said the Camden Parent​ Union has been essential in their programs.

"In these uncertain times we cannot give in to panic or give up hope.  As such, PBCIP, with grassroots partner Camden Parent Union, is committed to helping Parkside take control of its health destiny through the sharing of information and knowledge that's critical to combating, preventing and recovering from COVID-19,” Phifer said in a statement. “With this understanding, we have developed an outreach strategy that increases the knowledge of virus prevention, available programs and services offered to ensure the health and well-being of residents living and working in the Parkside community.”

If you are a Camden organization interested in discussing your local efforts, email srodas@tapinto.net. 

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