Grocery stores step up safety measures amid COVID-19 outbreak

A person sanitizes a credit card machine at a grocery store
Chris Wardwell sanitizes a credit card machine and the conveyor belt on Thursday after serving a customer at Wedge Community Co-op in Minneapolis. To curb the spread of COVID-19, Wedge Community Co-op workers are wearing gloves and sanitizing credit card machine and the conveyor belt after each customer.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Most Minnesotans have been told to stay home from their jobs to help slow the spread of coronavirus, but not Adam Evenstad. He runs the meat department at the Festival Foods store in Lexington, near Lino Lakes.

Grocery stores are one of the few places people still gather in large numbers — now that so many restaurants, bars and other businesses have been ordered closed, except for takeout orders — and Evenstad acknowledges his job causes him some worries.

“I think it would be disingenuous to say that we don't all face a little heightened anxiety just because we deal with the public to the degree that we do,” he said.

At least four grocery store employees across the country have died from COVID-19, according to press reports, and Walmart faces a lawsuit alleging the company didn't do enough to protect its workers.

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A person behind a meat counter
Meat department manager Adam Evenstad puts out a tray of meat on Thursday at Festival Foods in Lexington. Evenstad has been a Lexington Foods employee for 16 years.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Minnesota grocers have deployed plastic screens between customers and cashiers, equipped employees with gloves, hand sanitizer and face masks, marked floors to show customers where to stand, and limited how many shoppers can be in a store.

Evenstad said his employer is providing store workers with shields, hand sanitizers and other protections against the virus. And customers are helping, too, he said.

“We're definitely seeing a lot more people wearing masks when they come in. We really appreciate that,” Evenstad said. “It's in no way uncomfortable because we understand that that's going to help us as much as the person wearing the mask.”

At one of the Cub Foods locations in White Bear Lake, Rhonda Dooley, who runs the floral department, agrees that shoppers are helping, but not all, she said.

“So, they’re looking on their phone for a product and they’ll pretty much shove the phone right in our face and say, ‘hey, where is this product?’ That’s where we step back,” Dooley said.

So far, the health of area grocery workers seems to be holding up pretty well, according to Jennifer Christensen, president of UFCW Local 1189, the union representing about 6,000 workers at east Twin Cities metro area and Duluth grocery stores.

“I don't have any information and the employers have not let the local know that we have folks getting sick in a way that seems urgent,” Christensen said. “I'm actually surprised people are as healthy as they have been.”

People aren’t doing the frenzied shopping they did at the start of the COVID-19 crisis. Customer traffic is down about a third at Kowalski’s Markets’ 11 stores. And the grocer is prepared to limit how many people can be in a store to further protect employees and shoppers, said Mike Oase, Kowalski's chief operating officer.

“If at any point the management teams in the stores feel like the levels are getting too high, then they will put somebody at the front door and start to bring customers in as customers leave,” Oase said. “We haven't had to do that yet, but we're anticipating that we probably will this Friday and Saturday with Easter.”

Oase said Kowalski’s is trying to secure masks for employees, now that officials are recommending people wear them whenever they leave home.

The Wedge and Linden Hills Co-ops are starting a curbside pickup program. That’s a move that’ll lessen the angst of employees and shoppers, said Josh Resnik, the CEO of the co-ops’ parent company, Twin Cities Co-op Partners.

“A lot of people feel less comfortable going into grocery stores or any public environments right now. And, you know, this is a way for people to get food without going into stores,” Resnik said.

A person wearing gloves sanitizes a basket
To curb the spread of COVID-19, Wedge Community Co-op workers are sanitizing grocery cart and basket handles and bulk utensils and tongs.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

The co-ops are among those grocers letting employees stay home — and keep their jobs — if they fear catching COVID-19 or passing it on to an especially vulnerable family member, Resnik said, adding that no employee ill with COVID-19 will go without pay.

“They’re covered there, and nobody's going to lose their job for staying home for work,” Resnik said.

Cub Foods, Kowalski's, Target and other grocers have boosted employee pay by $2 an hour, at least temporarily. Some companies are paying double-time for overtime and have given employees bonuses of several hundred dollars. To encourage older and other vulnerable employees to stay home, Target is offering paid leaves of up to 30 days.

Such benefits may help grocers not only retain workers but also recruit new ones.

Christensen of the grocery employee union said area grocers are looking to hire hundreds of people. There's usually a hiring bump this time of year. But she said stores also need more employees to cope with increased work arising because of COVID-19, from curbside delivery to cleaning stores more intensely.