Montreal depanneurs are more essential than ever

Marché Bernard’s Yiong Wang on what it’s like serving the public during a pandemic.

Since midnight on Tuesday, March 24, all non-essential businesses in Quebec have been closed by provincial mandate. As the larger grocery stores manage line-ups stretched around the block to limit contact and deal with the whims of panic buyers and hoarders, Montreal depanneurs have never seemed so essential. In fact, they’re on a short list of businesses that are so essential, they’re not required to close on Sundays. While a few are open for reduced hours or offering delivery-only service, many, like Marché Bernard at the corner of Esplanade, continue to serve the neighbourhood from the early morning to 11 p.m. as usual.

Yiong Wang of Marché Bernard (201 Bernard W.) was happy to speak with me about running a dep during the ongoing crisis. I tried to keep my two-metres-away interview as brief as possible, to limit contact for both of us. Wang’s voice was muffled by two layers of mask, and he spoke from behind a recently erected wall of plexiglass with a plastic flap for cash transactions, but such is communication in times of social distancing.

Unlike convenience stores south of the border, which often have anti-theft glass protecting the cash counter, Montreal depanneurs are usually left open. I asked him about the rather artisanal barrier that now runs from counter to ceiling in Marché Bernard. “We built it last week,” he says. “The glass makes you feel safer, but maybe it’s only a feeling.”

Like many of us, he’s had a rough run of it since COVID-19 went pandemic. Normally, this corner dep is run by Wang, his wife and other family members. “I’m working alone now. My wife is staying home. When I get home, I have to wash everything: my clothing, myself, everything. Also, I cannot eat while I’m working. It’s really stressful.”

Running a depanneur under normal circumstances is no joke, but doing so alone in these times is truly heroic. “We still have to go out shopping and pay the staff, and we still have to pay the rent.”

Despite going out of his way to limit the potential for transmission, Wang offers service that’s just as courteous and dutiful to the community as it always is, even if the public doesn’t always reciprocate, “Sometimes I think people don’t understand how bad the virus is. Most people, they just don’t know. Prince Charles of England has caught it! And they still don’t realize they have to talk from one metre.”

As he said that last line, I felt myself involuntarily take another step away from the counter. (It’s worth noting again that social distancing calls for a two-metre distance, not one.)

People like Wang are the valiant night-watchmen of this crisis — his post is an often lonely and unforgiving one. It’s times like this where the value of Montreal depanneurs is most evident. So next time you have to break quarantine to grab a bag of chips or a case of beer, take a momentary break from COVID agoraphobia to thank the person behind the counter. What would we ever do without them? ■

For more Montreal depanneur profiles, see previous editions of Inspectah Dep here.

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