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Coronavirus Safety At 'Essential' Supermarkets, Food Retail Evolving As Supply Chain Strains

Grocery stores such as Kroger around the United States are using signage, plexiglass barriers and other measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease COVID-19.
The Kroger Co.
Grocery stores such as Kroger around the United States are using signage, plexiglass barriers and other measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease COVID-19.

The coronavirus pandemic has opened a divide between so-called “essential” workers and people who are able to work from home. The crisis is also shining a light on what some big United States retailers are doing to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

In Dayton, supermarkets are taking a host of measures designed to promote social distancing and keep shelves stocked and supply chains moving. They’re capping shopper numbers, enforcing one-way aisles and socially distanced checkout lines.

But some frontline supermarket workers say they still don’t feel safe on the job.

“When the COVID-19 pandemic began, I don’t think any of us knew what to expect or how long it would last," says Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen in a recent video message, praising store associates for stepping up and thanking them for helping to keep supermarkets open throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

McMullen also outlines the coronavirus safety steps Kroger’s taking during Ohio's outbreak. They include setting aside dedicated shopping hours for seniors and other high-risk populations, and scheduling extra time for cleaning and restocking shelves.

A plexiglass partition at a cashier checkout stand inside a Kroger store.
Credit The Kroger Co.
A plexiglass partition at a cashier checkout stand inside a Kroger store.

“We've installed plexiglass partitions at check stands and other locations throughout the store. We are encouraging associates to wear personal protective equipment like masks," says McMullen in the video. "We've installed physical distancing signage, reduced hours and many other things.”

Read more about Cincinnati-based Kroger's coronavirus response at the company website.  

And the measures have helped improve store safety says Lynne Morrill, who works at a Kroger in Centerville. But compliance is spotty, especially among customers.

“They'll climb over you to get something that they want -- social distancing or not," she says. "And the problem now is, is because everything is shut down, the only place to go is the grocery store. So, that's where people go to socialize you know, they've got like one thing in the cart and they stop in the middle when they see someone they know and they're just sitting there chatting away."

She says she's seen customers toss their used gloves on the floor or leave them in shopping carts near store exits for Kroger workers to clean up.

Even customers who are practicing social distancing and wearing gloves and masks seem confused about best practices for wearing PPE.

“You touch everything in the store that you're interested in. You may keep it or put it back on the shelf. Well, now that thing is contaminated and you take your gloves from one end of the store to the other. Then you get in line and touch your mask a couple of times, or you pull out your phone to look at your shopping list."

Morrill, who is using her maiden name out of fear of retaliation, says she also sees store employees take their gloves on and off during their shifts, touch their masks and phones with dirty gloves on.

"I just I feel like it's doing more harm than good," she says of the promotion of glove usage at stores.

The advice for staying safe in the pandemic can sometimes feel complicated.

The U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends everyone wear masks when shopping. But health officials caution that without adequate training, PPE could give some non-medical people a false sense of security in public places, leading to further contamination and spread of the disease.

Morrill is a former critical care nurse and knows well the proper protocol for PPE. She says she’s glad Kroger’s finally providing it to staff. But she worries that without everyone frequently changing their gloves, COVID-19 is free to spread.

That’s why she opts out of wearing gloves. Instead, she says, she’s disciplined, washing her hands dozens of times a shift.

Kroger workers help customers in the early weeks of the coronavirus outbreak in Ohio, before Kroger took additional safety steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among employees and customers.
Credit Jess Mador / WYSO
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WYSO
Kroger workers help customers in the early weeks of the coronavirus outbreak in Ohio, before Kroger took additional safety steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among employees and customers.

“I do not touch my face," she says. "If I have to touch my face for whatever reason I go to the bathroom, wash my hands, scratch my nose or fix my hair or whatever it is, or my eye itches or whatever. And I just sanitize."

Sanitizing, frequent handwashing and staying home are recommended by the CDC as the best ways to protect yourself and others from the virus.

And during the pandemic, Kroger has enhanced its cleaning schedules. The company is allowing employees to wash their hands and work areas every half hour.

The retailer is also among those that have given employees temporary wage increases, special hazard bonuses or emergency paid leave. Other chains such as Walmart and Fresh Thyme are taking employee temperatures on every shift.

Still, the national United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents 1.3 million workers in health care, grocery stores, meatpacking, food processing, retail shops and other industries, has called on essential businesses to do more to better safeguard workers’ health amid the coronavirus.

And many nonunion workers in a diverse range of companies and industries, such as meat processing, Amazon, McDonald’s and elsewhere, have walked off the job protesting what they say are unsafe working conditions.

“You've got to protect them, give them masks and gloves, you’ve got to pay them an incentive -- far beyond the minimum wages they may be making. Treat them like human beings, important human beings,” says Mark A. Cohen, director of the Retail Studies program and an adjunct professor at the Columbia Business School.

He’s worked in the retail industry for half a century and says the country’s supply chain is not prepared for a crisis on the scale of the pandemic. It’s built to maximize productivity and efficiency.

Now, it’s under stress as fear drives many Americans who can afford it to stock up at the supermarket.

“Because when people really feel threatened, they don't behave like model citizens," he says. "They need to stop hoarding. Stores need to stop selling people full shopping carts of consumables. We have to start allowing the supply chain to recover and the only way to do that is by voluntarily or involuntarily participating in a more reasonable marketplace.”

With the shortage of testing, and manufacturing, retail and transportation workers at high risk of exposure to COVID-19 for the foreseeable future, Cohen wants the government to do more to stop shoppers from buying more than they really need during supermarket trips.

And he wants to see new, strict incentives forcing industries to build up their own stockpiles of food, critical supplies and other key equipment needed to help the country weather the next inevitable emergency.