When Bob Johnston drove past Cronig’s early in the morning last week, something wasn’t right. Cronig’s owner, Stever Bernier, who usually sweeps the parking lot at 7 am every day to ensure the premises are spick and span for the day’s customers, was nowhere to be be found.
Bernier is currently at home recovering from COVID-19.
That is why early on Saturday morning, Johnston and Phil Wallis gathered a group of seven community members to help clean the store’s parking lot in Bernier’s stead.
Wallis and Johnston, two of Bernier’s friends, checked up on Bernier last week via email upon learning that he contracted the virus. In the email exchanges that ensued, Wallis joked about taking over Bernier’s daily cleanup routine while he recovers from the virus. After some reflection, Johnston followed up with Wallis, suggesting they actually turn this banter into a reality by organizing a communal cleanup to support Bernier.
“Steve is always giving back to the community, and thinking about health and safety always, to the point of sweeping his parking lot every day,” Wallis explained. “It’s just a little way of appreciating a person who has given back a lot to the community.”
So, soon after deciding they would make this thought a reality, Johnston and Wallis called up their friends, and on Saturday morning, a group of seven people, accompanied by Johnston’s dog Monty, gathered to thoroughly clean the down-Island store’s parking lot. The group was fortunate to have the help of Tristan Israel, who owns a landscaping business and helped ensure they left the lot spotless after their efforts. The team swept the lot, cleaned out the garden beds, and removed debris that had flown into the hedges, altogether filling Israel’s pickup truck several times over.
Just like Bernier’s daily sweeping represented more than meticulous managing, this initiative wasn’t just spontaneous camaraderie: It was about fostering a vibrant community. That is why when Wallis asked Melinda Loberg to participate, she didn’t hesitate one moment. “I just felt it was the right thing to do,” Loberg said. “The community supports him completely, and I support him.”
Loberg had helped Bernier with messaging at the beginning of the pandemic, and witnessed the titanic effort he had been putting into ensuring Cronig’s stay open and his employees and customers safe throughout this tumultuous year. “I knew what a toll this was taking on him. I just admired the effort that he was making,” Lodberg said.
The idea that Bernier’s morning presence helped strengthen the Island community was shared by Johnston. “It’s not just an act of cleaning. That’s him being open and available to the passersby in the community who simply want an opportunity to chat with Steve,” Johnston said. “And I’ve never once seen Steve shrug a shoulder or turn away. In some ways, that opportunity to interact with the community is more important than cleaning the parking lot.”
Cronig’s isn’t a grocery store like any other. It is a place where people can come together, catch up, and feel a sense of belonging. That is why Johnston thinks keeping the store open despite the challenges associated with COVID-19 was so meaningful. “The obvious courage and heroic effort to keep that community crossroads open through a pandemic can’t be overstated,” Johnston said.
To Johnston, the importance of keeping the store open wasn’t mainly operational, but also “spiritual”: “I think the whole community, the whole Island has drawn energy — and I can speak for myself — energy and some level of comfort that Cronig’s is there and that the Cronig’s team is there in a way that contributes to how I believe the Vineyard will make it through this pandemic.”
Wallis said they plan to repeat the cleanup initiative a couple of times while Bernier recovers, to ensure the lot stays clean and community members have someone to chat with in the early hours of the morning. But, most important, they all hope Bernier will be back as soon as possible, so that the community can feel whole again. “We’ll keep an eye on the parking lot for him,” Wallis said.