My 10-week pandemic furlough from the Fairfield University Bookstore ended Tuesday, but the return was hardly normal. After watching the ways other stores had prepared for distance learning, I knew things would be different, but I didn’t realize how different until I arrived for the first step of my transition back to work - COVID-19 training.

As I walked through the parking lot entrance with our assistant manager Audriana, I saw cordoned-off areas and bookshelves and arrows and boxes throughout the entire downstairs. Management had transformed the store into a COVID-19-ready facility and opening was scheduled for Wednesday, May 27th with hours all seven days from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. indefinitely.

Our training was upstairs in the textbook area and I set up the chairs in a circle with the mandatory six-foot space between them. I was happy to see 7 or 8 of my colleagues and our planner Abbie joined us on Zoom with her little girl. We shared quarantine stories and experiences. Martina, for example, had completed her undergraduate program on line and was ready to start her master’s in the teaching of English with online courses next week. She had remained healthy and safe throughout the 10 weeks.

My colleague Christian had also remained safe, but mentioned that a couple of his relatives had passed away during the 10-week period. He said that his family wasn’t sure if the deaths were due to the virus or other causes.

My other colleague Craig and his husband had remained at their vacation home in the Cape, but were healthy. He mentioned that his husband, who has his own business, was able to commute back and forth to Westchester County during the quarantine.

Chelsea, our textbook manager, had been at the store for a few weeks, trying to sort out rental book returns and summer school orders. I did not envy her situation.

Much of our training was predictable - constant disinfecting of all surfaces, doors, phones and computers; wearing our masks and distancing from each other and customers and meticulous clean up after use of the bathrooms. Our bathrooms would not be open to the public except for emergencies.

And there were many new rules. For instance, we are all required to take our temperatures before coming to work and if those numbers are 100 or higher, we are to stay home. There will no sitting in our break room - breaks should be taken outside the store.

On our tour of the first floor, we learned that there will be no more than 25 customers in the store at one time and a greeter at each entrance will direct customers toward our information area and to any open tables of books. If a person wants a particular book from a roped-off area, only the associate on duty can retrieve the book or look up the title.

For this initial phase of the opening, our manager Janet told us that we would be doing mostly curbside deliveries and associates would have to retrieve books or merchandise for customers to take to either of two registers. While Starbucks would not be open during this first week, we learned how to direct customers properly to that area once it was open.

By the time my shift ended, I was still trying to wrap my arms around these new procedures and accepting that it will take several shifts. Our manager pointed out that the reason for restricting the handling of books and merchandise by customers was the potential for transferring the virus.

I concluded that this training was in many ways far more intense than the new employee training I went through six years ago. For instance, I had to keep reminding myself not to walk directly toward shelves or I’d bump into the strings that blocked them. P.S. I forgot that a few dozen times. I also had to constantly use the abundance of sanitizers on counters and wipe down all surfaces and computers. And I had to learn those directional arrows and distance boxes that were set up in various parts of the store.

For the remainder of my shift I shelved or re-shelved books that hadn’t been touched in weeks and began building a graduation display table of books, stuffed animals and other graduation memorabilia to help customers feel that graduation excitement. Our goal, despite the limitations that this pandemic has created, was to re-open a store that would be as welcoming as possible.

We knew that customers might not recognize our smiles under our masks or might feel put off by the necessary restrictions that the state and the university have had to apply. But we hoped that the sounds of our voices and our enthusiasm would convey how happy we were to be open and great it was to have our customers back … at last.

Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his “In the Suburbs” appears each Friday. He can be reached at stevengaynes44@gmail.com.