A QuikTrip convenience store at 31st and Sheridan Road in Tulsa. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

A 22-year-old employee of Tulsa-based convenience store chain QuikTrip died last week after contracting COVID-19, according to an email sent by QuikTrip CEO Chet Cadieux III which was obtained by The Frontier.

Israel Sauz, who worked at a store in Tulsa, is believed to be the first-known QuikTrip employee in Oklahoma to contract and die from the virus.

Sauz leaves behind a wife and newborn son, according to family members who’ve posted about his death on social media. Mike Thornbrough, QuikTrip’s manager of Government and Public Affairs, said Suaz’s family notified the company over the weekend of the 22-year-old’s death.

In the email, which was addressed to “all QuikTrippers,” Cadieux said that Sauz “lost his fight with the corona virus and passed away.” 

Cadieux said QuikTrip had been in contact with Sauz’s wife and that the company “WILL take care of Israel’s family.”

“Candidly, I believe that the details of how we do that are a private matter between the family and myself but I assure you that we will do the right thing,” Cadieux wrote.

He said in the email that the company believes Sauz contracted the virus outside of work, and that he had not been at work since March 16. 

“No member of his store team has shown any symptoms of the virus and the health department has let us know that the rest of the store team are safe to continue their work.

“Nonetheless, we will never know for certain how he became infected. And frankly it doesn’t matter. It won’t bring Israel back. We just know that we are heartbroken for his family and all who knew and loved him … if you’re crying right now, it’s because you’re supposed to be. I am as well.”

There have been at least 51 deaths in Oklahoma so far connected to the novel coronavirus, but Sauz’s death is an outlier. Of the 51 deaths in the state, 38 of them have been Oklahomans 65 years old or older. The virus is known to affect all age groups, but is considered most harmful to the elderly and immunocompromised.

A gofundme account has been set up to help Sauz’s family. 

Convenience stores, like QuikTrip, are considered essential businesses in Oklahoma. But their cramped quarters and, particularly in QuikTrip’s case, heavy foot traffic, have made it difficult to limit possible exposure to the coronavirus.

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Late last week Quiktrip introduced in-store policies intended to keep shoppers and workers safe to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, Thornbrough said in an email.

“We do have signage on our doors that limit (to) 10 customers at a time, we have eliminated refills for self service drinks and put all the lids behind the counter,” he said. “As the guidance (from the CDC) changes, and it will, we will implement them.”

Thornbrough encouraged shoppers to do what they can personally to prevent catching or spreading the virus.

“We can’t say this enough, wash your hands constantly with warm water for 20-30 seconds,” he said. “Avoid touching your nose, eyes and mouth. If you need to cough or sneeze, cover your mouth and nose. Stay home if you are sick and please use social distancing.”

QuikTrip has been deemed an essential business for a number of reasons — people need gasoline after all — but also because each store, of which there are more than 800 nationwide, serve as mini-grocery stores.

“We are on this (essential) business list because we sell gasoline and because we sell packaged food and fresh food for off-premise consumption,” QuikTrip said in a statement. “We have checked with Federal and local authorities and in each case we have been told that they need us to stay open.”

Last weekend the White House coronavirus task force urged Americans to avoid grocery stores and pharmacies over the next two weeks as the outbreak continues.

“This is the moment to not be going to the grocery store, not going to the pharmacy, but doing everything you can to keep your family and friends safe,” said coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx on Saturday.

In Oklahoma, the timing is perhaps more urgent. Gov. Kevin Stitt has said that Oklahoma, due to its location in the middle of the country, was among the last states to be hit by the coronavirus. Due to that timing, as well as testing struggles in the state that have made it hard to grasp the full impact of the virus here, this might be the most crucial time in Oklahoma if the outbreak is to be somewhat contained.

QuikTrip is not alone in its recent efforts to limit customer and worker exposure. Walmart has also begun to limit the number of customers that can be in the store at one time to five customers per 1,000 square feet, and has implemented a one in, one out policy requiring customers to line up outside (six free away from each other) before entering one at a time.

Reasors, an Oklahoma-based grocery store chain, said last week it would be supplying masks and gloves to employees who would like to wear them and placing directional signs on the floors in order to aid social distancing practices. The stores have also added additional curbside pick-up slots to help allow customers to get groceries without entering the store.