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Are grocery stores doing enough to keep employees and shoppers safe during the coronavirus pandemic?

Grocers make changes to keep customers, employees safe
Are grocery stores doing enough to keep employees and shoppers safe during the coronavirus pandemic?
Posted at 8:57 AM, Apr 09, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-09 10:57:50-04

Editor's Note: Denver7 360 stories explore multiple sides of the topics that matter most to Coloradans, bringing in different perspectives so you can make up your own mind about the issues. To comment on this or other 360 stories, email us at 360@TheDenverChannel.com . See more 360 stories here.

DENVER -- Across the country and in Colorado, grocery stores are taking steps to try to keep customers and employees safe through the coronavirus pandemic.

As the novel coronavirus has spread, grocers have changed their approach to add more safety measures when necessary.

At first, the changes stores made had to do with supply, since customers were panic-shopping and clearing out store shelves of everything from bread to tissues to soap. Item limits were put in place to try to ensure that shoppers weren’t hoarding supplies.

More recently, stores have started to limit the number of shoppers coming in and have tried to implement social distancing as best they can.

Denver7 took a 360 look at the safety measures grocers are putting in place to get multiple perspectives on whether they are enough.

A safe, sanitary shopping experience

Grocery stores have implemented a number of changes throughout the stores to implement social distancing; some stores are broadcasting a message to their customers every hour or half-hour to remind them to keep their distance from other shoppers. The soup and salad bars that used to be available in some stores are now empty.

Stores like Target and Safeway have placed stickers on the ground marking out six feet distances for people who are waiting to check out.

Some grocers are having employees wipe down the self-scans after every use as well as the handles of carts as soon as they are returned.

Employees themselves are encouraged to wash their hands regularly and, after some hesitation at first, stores are allowing employees to wear gloves and masks while they work.

“We recognize that we provide an essential service to our communities,” said Vivek Sankaran, President and CEO of Albertsons Companies in a statement. “We are doing everything we can to provide a safe, secure, and comfortable shopping space for our valued customers.”

Natural Grocers started closing its stores early each night to give employees enough time to clean. It also hired 700 temporary workers to help with cleaning and restocking. It also gave pay bumps to all of its employees as well as discretionary bonuses.

King Soopers and many other stores have also added plexiglass partitions at the checkout lanes to better separate the employees and associates.

The grocery chain also announced Monday it was going to be limiting the number of customers in a store at any one time to 50% of the capacity.

“We strive to make decisions that balance the safety of our associates with our commitments to our customers and communities,” a statement from the company read.

The retailer started testing temperature checks in its distribution centers several weeks ago and is beginning to check the temperatures of employees in the stores. It’s also testing out one-way shopping aisles to see if they can increase physical distancing.

The stores say more changes might be ahead as cities and states work to contain the coronavirus. For now, the grocers are doing what they can to keep shelves stocked and employees and customers safe in this essential industry.

An employee’s plea

There’s one thing Michael Pellersels wishes people who come into the King Soopers he works at would stop doing: shopping when they are sick.

“If you do feel like you’re getting ill, then reach out to family members and friends and have them do some shopping for you,” he said.

Pellersels has worked for the company for nine years and is now one of millions of clerks across their country putting his health and safety at risk for a paycheck.

The stakes are even higher for his family: Pellersels’ girlfriend is pregnant and both she and her son suffer from asthma, so if he gets sick and brings the virus home to his family, the consequences could be serious.

“I work the self-checkout a lot and I mean, it’s definitely a little bit more difficult because it’s just a more compact area,” he said.

The customers Pellersels encounters each day have been very supportive of employees throughout the entire process, many thanking them for their work. Some customers were nice enough to even give Pellersels and other employees masks to wear since they didn’t have their own.

“The store has been working on getting us masks, but it’s just been a difficult balance between making sure that we get them and are protected but also that the masks are going to the hospital workers,” he said.

So far, he’s happy with all of the changes King Soopers and other stores have put in place to keep them safe, including the plexiglass barriers. The barriers are a little strange for someone like Pellersels, who likes to interact with customers and have a personal connection, to get used to.

However, even the safety measures have limits; the plexiglass only runs half the length of the register.

“It definitely may not be perfect, but I think as this whole thing plays out, I don’t think anything has been perfect,” Pellersels said.

One of the areas where interactions between customers and employees is inevitable is the self-checkout line. There are times when the scanner doesn’t work properly, when the customer needs help imputing a coupon or produce code or when the employee needs to check their ID.

In those situations, it might be a good idea for the shopper to step away from the scanner and give the employees some space to work.

“A lot of the checkers will tell them, ‘Don’t actually hand us your ID, just hold it up for us just enough so we can see the date.’ Just small things like that that still let us do what we need to do but also provide a little distance and a little cushion between everyone,” he said.

Overall, though, Pellersels has been happy with the changes the grocery stores have made and even said employees were given a bonus for their hard work.

Masks and to-do lists

Since the first case of the coronavirus came to Colorado, Governor Jared Polis has taken a series of steps to keep people safe and lower the curve of COVID-19 patients. At first, the Governor promoted social distancing.

During a March 22 news briefing, the Governor asked people to go to the grocery store less often, saying he was working with major chains to try to ensure a safer shopping environment for everyone.

Then on March 24, the Governor sent a letter to major grocers, imploring them to take additional safety measures in their stores.

“I continue to push them to do as much as they can with all of our orders,” he said during a news conference.

Finally, on April 3, Governor Polis started asking everyone in the state who leaves their house to wear masks.

“Grocery store of workers and others that work in critical retail that are exposed to customers will have the biggest immediate safety gains from this decision to move to wearing masks in Colorado,” the governor said.

He also encouraged employees to wear masks and for employers to supply the masks, if possible.

“We hope that we can provide professional masks in many of those facilities where people are exposed to others,” the governor said.

However, the first priority for masks coming in to the state will be hospitals and health care workers.

For now, the governor encouraged employees to make or bring their own to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

Shopping solo

There are some other things customers can do to help keep their fellow shoppers and the grocery store employees safe.

Former Commerce City council member and long-time grocery store clerk Steve Douglas would like to see fewer people coming to the stores in groups.

“Another level of security or comfort would be maybe to just have one person from the household come in and shop if that’s possible,” Douglas said.

He understands that scenario isn’t ideal, nor is it completely possible for single parents or others. However, for those who can limit the number of people coming in, Douglas believes it would help lower the amount of exposure for everyone.

“To have one person from the household shop that would help,” he said.

There is a lot of concern coming from employees who want to protect their health and safety but who need to come to work for a paycheck.

The new protocols are starting to help but Douglas says there is still a lot of concern among employees, particularly those who are older or more vulnerable.

For the most part, he says customers have been patient and understanding, but he knows how frustrating it can be for shoppers to encounter empty shelf after empty shelf for days at a time. For now, he’s just asking people to understand that the stores and employees are working as fast as they can to restock and to keep people safe.

“This is the new normal and we have to look at how we are going to go forward with this,” Douglas said.

More to be done

With every new announcement from the state, there is a potential for unintended consequences.

Kim Cordova, the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 union says grocery stores experienced the unintended consequences of a statewide quarantine firsthand when people overwhelmed the grocery stores with panic-buying.

This prolonged quarantine is also creating another unintended consequence: people hanging out in grocery stores.

“Grocery store shouldn’t be a place to congregate if some folks just don’t have anything else to do,” Cordova said. “We really need limits. We have asked the governor for that.”

With the latest announcement that anyone leaving their homes should wear masks, there are potential unintended consequences since people are now allowed to cover their faces in public.

“Our concern is with robberies, we want additional security,” she said.

There’s also the issue of having people take off their masks to show their faces when an ID check is necessary, exposing the employee and the customer to one another.

While Cordova is heartened by the fact that employees are now allowed to wear gloves and masks while working, she says that should have happened a lot sooner and there are other changes stores need to make for the sake of safety.

Along with more crowd control and limits on the number of people entering the stores, she’s pushing for screenings on shoppers to make sure they aren’t coming in while they are sick.

“We’re getting a lot of complaints from customers that have been coming in and they’re sneezing or they’re coughing,” Cordova said.

She also wants more transparency from the grocery stores to let employees know when one of their coworkers tested positive and for that information to be shared with UFCW so that it can keep track of the cases.

In the end, the safety measures grocery stores are taking are a step in the right direction, but Cordova feels they’re not enough.

Safety first

Whenever people leave the house and head to the grocery store, they are exposing themselves to others.

There are steps shoppers can take to minimize their contact with others while picking up the groceries they need.

Self-checkout scanners limit the amount of contact customers have with store clerks. Shopping online and picking the groceries up or having the items delivered is another way to lessen exposure.

For now, though, the best way to limit the amount of exposure to your family and employees is to stay home and only shop when you need to.