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For some, post office takes on renewed importance during isolation

  • James Turco loads sorted mail into bins as Michael Ayers, foreground, runs a sorting machine at the U.S. Postal Service processing plant in White River Junction, Vt., Tuesday, April 14, 2020. Social distancing is encouraged at the plant and employees are offered gloves and masks, though they are not required to wear them. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Pierce Ellinwood, of Hanover, unties his dog Kingsley after picking up mail and packages at the Hanover, N.H., post office Tuesday, April 14, 2020. A graduate student of cultural studies at Dartmouth College, Ellinwood said he usually has packages sent to his department, but with campus buildings closed has started using the post office. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Letter Carrier Stephen Castellani empties a U.S. Postal Service relay box of mail tubs on his way back to the Hanover, N.H., post office Tuesday, April 15, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Brett Hanlon, acting manager of the of the White River Junction, Vt., U.S. Postal Service distribution plant., said Tuesday, April 14, 2020, that about 85% of his 130 employees are continuing to work daily through the COVID-19 pandemic, while some plants in larger areas are down to about 30%. “I’m just trying to keep my employees as safe as possible,” with offering gloves, masks, encouraging social distancing and adding barriers between close work stations, he said. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Carol Fairbanks loads sorted mail into bins at the U.S. Postal Service processing plant in White River Junction, Vt., Tuesday, April 14, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/16/2020 9:08:48 PM
Modified: 4/16/2020 9:08:37 PM

HANOVER — Wearing a pink floral homemade mask, Hanover resident Margaret Sheehan arrived on the steps of the South Main Street post office Tuesday morning, packages in hand.

It was one of several trips the avid seamstress has made to the post office over the past few weeks.

As the outbreak of COVID-19 forces residents around the country, including Sheehan, to isolate at home, she has relied on the postal service to send homemade masks to her friends in Orford; her mother-in-law in Massachusetts; and her brother in Washington, D.C.

The agency, she said, has become a “connection to the outside world.”

The postal service has not escaped the economic toll of the virus, including in Vermont and New Hampshire, where the number of letters being sent has decreased, according to Steve Doherty, a spokesman for the Northeast region of the U.S. Postal Service.

And local offices have had to quickly implement new safety measures.

Still, many people are turning to local post offices as one remaining connection to the outside world — to send packages to family members and friends in isolation and to buy or sell items online.

For many “non-essential” businesses that have closed their doors in the midst of COVID-19, the postal service has provided a path to continue operations.

“It’s a link between us and our customers,” Liza Bernard, co-owner of Norwich Bookstore, said on Wednesday.

Even though its retail hours are suspended, the store can still give book recommendations over the phone and ship orders to customers — something Bernard said they’ve been doing frequently since the pandemic began.

On a normal week, she said, the store might ship three packages, but now it is sending out around 12 a day. The daily shipments have even surpassed the number of packages the store sends around the holidays, Bernard said.

“It’s nothing like what we’re doing now,” she said.

Recent shipments include a large order of textbooks to Dartmouth College students who are taking classes remotely and packages of books to Norwich residents who are concerned about leaving their homes.

“Some things can be done through email, but you can’t really email a book or a card or a game,” she said.

The postal agency has been a boon to those isolating at home, too.

Andrew James, a Hanover resident who came to the town’s post office Tuesday, said he’s been able to send gifts to family members he can’t see in person, several of whom have had birthdays over the past month.

His girlfriend’s mother has also been sending the couple a lot of gifts while they’re in isolation.

“It’s been nice to get care packages,” James said.

Doherty said post office locations have implemented new safety measures quickly.

Many have put markers on the ground that tell customers how far apart to stand, he said.

They have also installed plexiglass barriers between employees and customers, and have moved the credit card machines farther away from the employees.

The department is taking precautionary measures for mail carriers as well.

Carriers are changing the way they drop off packages, by knocking on a door rather than ringing a bell, and speaking with residents from a distance.

“We are experiencing some unprecedented times and are using creative ways to interact with others,” Lyme Postmaster Robin Tabor wrote in a Listserv email to residents last week.

She urged residents to conduct postal business over the phone when possible, and wrote that the office can mail stamps or other items to cut down the need to physically come into the office.

If a resident is leaving something for their neighbor, they should put it in a bag next to the mailbox, not in the box itself, she wrote.

Along with safety concerns, the postal service is facing another struggle in the midst of the outbreak: financial loss.

U.S. Postmaster General Megan Brennan released a statement Monday saying the pandemic has caused a “sudden drop in mail volumes” and a decline in postal product sales.

The virus could cause the service, already burdened with debt, to lose another $22 billion over the next year and a half, she wrote.

Last week, the postal service asked Congress for $75 billion in funding to keep the agency alive, according to CNN. But U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to veto a coronavirus relief bill if it contains any money to bail out the postal service, the Washington Post reported Saturday.

Doherty said the larger financial impact that local offices will face “remains to be seen.”

For now, some concerned customers are trying to help out the postal service in any way they can, with many rushing to buy stamps online, according to National Public Radio.

On a local level, an anonymous donor bought lunch for workers at the Norwich Post Office this week, according to a Listserv post by Dan Fraser of Dan & Whit’s.

“Love that this is continuing on,” Fraser wrote. “Spread the kind deeds all around town.”

Anna Merriman can be reached at amerriman@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.




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