Wide-ranging precautions hope to keep an essential business going amid COVID-19.

By Tim Nelson
March 26, 2020
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Now more than ever, grocery stores are essential places of business. Employees of the nation’s supermarkets are doing vital frontline work, exposing themselves to a higher risk of infection for pay that certainly feels too low at a time like this. 

Still, people need to eat during a crisis, and as long as supply chains are capable of keeping shelves stocked, grocery stores have little choice but to stay open. That inherently runs the risk of exposing both shoppers and staff to COVID-19. Luckily, there are already some enhanced precautions in place to protect employees and the general public, as well as maintain a sense of order during a time of panic buying. Here’s a look at some of the new policies and protections that’ve been put into place, and what they mean.

Social Distancing Decals

Between narrow aisles, checkout lines, and larger crowds, maintaining six feet between shoppers (not to mention between shoppers and employees) can sometimes slip from our minds. Supermarket chains are putting up posters and laying down floor decals in areas where lines typically form to remind their customers about the importance of social distancing and giving each other space. So far, Target and Albertson’s are among the larger chains to employ these sorts of reminders throughout their stores.

Sneeze Guards

In the one part of the store where a social distancing boundary of six feet can’t be enforced as easily, retailers are taking extra precautions to protect employees. Big chains like Walmart, Kroger, Albertson’s, and Whole Foods are in the process of introducing plexiglass sneeze guards in checkout lanes. These chains say they’re in the process of instituting these across all their stores over the next two to three weeks, with some already in place.

Revised Hours

The concept of providing special shopping hours for seniors and the immunocompromised has caught on across the country, usually when stores first open in the morning and are at their cleanest. It’s a useful way to help those who are at the most risk get what they need without the chaos. At the same time, certain bigger retailers are curtailing their hours so that they can keep shelves stocked and stores cleaned. Walmart, for example, has cut back its hours from 7 AM to 8:30 PM, a big change from the normal 24 hours of service at some locations.

More Cleanings

It sounds obvious, but it’s a true and necessary precaution. Stores are putting more of an effort to keep things clean, changing not only the frequency but the nature of their cleanings as well. For example, Target says it will clean its checkout lanes after every single transaction, and that some aisles will be closed during store hours so staff can perform a deep cleaning. Meanwhile, Walmart is using a “backpack-style sprayer” for cleaning carts that works “quicker and more thoroughly,” according to CNN.

Leave Your Bags at Home

Though they’re great for shopping sustainably during normal times, reusable bags brought from home unfortunately could be carrying COVID-19, in addition to your groceries. Supermarkets of all sorts are discouraging customers from bringing reusable bags, and states like Massachusetts have banned them outright for the time being. Luckily, some retailers like Target who are instituting this new policy have waived the small surcharge associated with single-use paper or plastic bags.

Anti-Hoarding Measures

With only so much to go around at a given time, retailers are taking steps to limit hoarding of popular products. For Costco, that means banning returns of cleaners, toilet paper, and other hard to find items. H-E-B has also imposed limits on a wide range of both food and non-food items.

Limits on Shoppers

In an effort to enforce social distancing, supermarkets are tightening the occupancy limits on their locations, both by their own volition and to comply with new state and municipal ordinances. Costco restricted the number of shoppers in stores earlier this month, and Whole Foods’ New York City locations are limited to 50 shoppers at a time, though that’s merely had the effect of forming lines outside their stores. You may want to check what sort of occupancy rules your local supermarket has in place ahead of time.

More PPE for Employees

In another obvious and useful step, stores have relaxed policies to allow employees to wear protective masks and gloves, given the risk posed by proximity to customers and handling supplies. Giant Food and Kroger are among those encouraging this, though supply remains an issue.

That’s led Kroger to push for greater access to supplies that can protect employees.  "We are advocating to government officials at all levels for help securing a priority place in line for all grocery workers—after health care workers—to have access to protective masks and gloves," a Kroger spokesperson said according to Grocery Dive.

Say Goodbye to Self-Serve

If you want hot food or drinks, you’re going to have to handle that at home. Places like Albertson’s are shutting down hot food bars and other buffets, given the amount of touching by the general public involved. Wawa and Sheetz have similarly suspended self-serve coffee for the time being. It’s a common-sense measure to shut down high-touch areas that could spread disease faster than they could possibly be cleaned. Costco hit pause on free samples for similar reasons.

Extra Help and Hazard Pay for Workers

The widespread acknowledgement that grocery store workers are truly essential in a time of crisis has inspired a broad push for enhanced pay and benefits to offset the greater risk they face. For example, Safeway struck a deal with its union to introduce a temporary $2 per hour raise, while also granting added flexibility for working parents who have to contend with closed schools. Any workers who test positive for COVID-19 or otherwise need to quarantine will be given two weeks of paid sick time. Of course, these policies can always go further, especially as it relates to allowing for additional paid sick leave.

Other chains like H-E-B, Whole Foods, and BJ’s Wholesale Club have followed suit in temporarily boosting worker wages. In some cases, that’s also involved hiring new employees to keep their existing workforce from getting burnt out.

Venturing out into the world is stressful right now for everyone, but especially the supermarket employees who are putting themselves in harm’s way every day. While these retailers have put policies in place for the protection of everyone, shoppers can take some steps to make everyone’s lives easier too, like shopping alone whenever possible, remaining cognizant of social distancing, and taking only what you need.

Above all, be patient and friendly to the grocery store employees you encounter. They didn’t ask to be thrust into the center of a public health crisis, and they certainly deserve our respect now more than ever. If we’ve learned anything over the past month, it’s that they and their work are taken for granted far too often. After all, who knows where we’d be without them right now.