"Every day I see more and more people come into the store to look for their new hot electronic," Ponce said. "That worries me. Despite all the information out there about COVID and the precautions we should be taking — stay at home, wear a mask, don't go out if you don't need to — a lot of people just don't listen to that."
He has already gotten a taste of what managing an influx of customers might feel like. With the release of Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 this month, Ponce said customers have been coming in to pepper him with questions about the consoles, even though they've been sold out for weeks.
"If (customers) could stop rushing into the store, that would be nice, so there wouldn't be so many people and I wouldn't increase my chances of possibly contracting something," Ponce said.
"Every day is an anxiety attack waiting to happen," said Hernandez, the shoe store employee who spoke on the condition that The Times not identify the specific retailer where she works due to concerns it could put her job in jeopardy.
Employees at her shop wash their hands, wear masks, limit store capacity and disinfect benches and other surfaces regularly, Hernandez said. But she worries about crowding at the mall. She says the security team doesn't want long lines outside stores, leaving her and other employees feeling pressured to let in more customers than they should.
"Although masks are required, people often walk around with their masks hanging down their ears, or just completely off because they're indulging in a warm pretzel or a Frappuccino," Hernandez said in an email.
When Hernandez politely asks customers to put on their mask, they often refuse, and even though she's uncomfortable, she has no choice but to help them anyway.
At the beginning of the pandemic, GameStop employees at stores across California accused the company of staying open when nonessential businesses were supposed to shut down and failing to provide adequate disinfectant and other cleaning supplies.
Jacquelyn Frazer, 25, says she and GameStop have adapted to pandemic realities. But she has no idea what to expect on Black Friday this year. Usually, there's a line at the Livermore, Calif., store before it even opens. The idea of managing crowds now is frightening, she said, especially because she lives with someone who has leukemia and is thus especially vulnerable to the coronavirus.
"We've accepted there's a chance of us being exposed to it regardless, and we just have to do our best to take precautions," Frazer said. "But the stress is still there."