Should Customers be Banned from Grocery Stores to Prevent Coronavirus Deaths?

Current measures taken to protect grocery workers may not be enough with thousands still falling ill due to the coronavirus.
Current measures taken to protect grocery workers may not be enough with thousands still falling ill due to the coronavirus.

April 20, 2020 - Around the world, concerns are being raised about the health and safety of grocery store workers after a number of coronavirus deaths were attributed to being in close contact with customers. Union workers and experts are calling for new measures to be taken to prevent the numbers worsening.

In the US alone, at least 41 grocery store workers have died from the coronavirus and thousands more have fallen ill or are unable to work because they’ve been exposed to the disease. Marc Perrone of United Food and Commercial Workers’ Union in the US confirms that careless customers are the “biggest threat” to food workers right now. There are multiple reports of customers not practicing physical distancing, not wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) and simply not being aware that their actions could cause harm to others. Furthermore, customers may not be experiencing symptoms due to being asymptomatic or presymptomatic and still transmitting the virus to food workers either through person-to-person contact or through cross-contamination on objects and surfaces.

Steps being taken already by food retail businesses include providing PPE to workers, installing plastic barriers, and regulating how many customers can enter the store at any one time. Some stores are mandating that customers wear masks while shopping in-store and others such as the T&T supermarket chain in Canada are checking customers temperatures before allowing them to enter the store. But as the number of grocery workers infected with the coronavirus continue to rise, the question must be asked - are these steps enough or should customers be banned from entering the stores entirely?

Food retail workers are becoming increasingly concerned about their own health and safety. In recent weeks, major chains such as Amazon and Instacart have seen staged walkouts due to concerns about virus exposure on the job. And Julia Pollock, a labor economist for the site ZipRecruiter states that job postings for supermarket workers have jumped more than 60% in the last 4 weeks as workers don’t want to take the risk of working in such environments. The number of workers leaving these companies combined with increased demand for pickers and drivers has led to a surge of recruitment globally. In the UK, supermarket giant Tesco hired 35,000 new members of staffin the last 10 days of March.

The move to prevent customers from entering stores is not yet being enforced but is recommended by high-level government agencies including the US Labor Department who last week recommended that food retail businesses set up delivery windows or introduce curbside pickup to minimize risk to their workers in-store.

Some small grocery stores have been banning customers from entering their stores since the early stages of the pandemic with more joining the ranks all the time. Arguably it’s easier for small independent stores to implement such measures as there’s less need to cut through the red tape that occurs at a corporate level. The Gardenview grocery store in Toronto’s Queen West is one such store. Since the Canadian government started enforcing shutdown measures related to the pandemic, customers have not been permitted to enter the store and instead place their orders at the door with a staff member who then collects the items and passes them out of the door along with a credit card machine to accept contactless payment only.

However the move to ban customers from stores causes a host of new problems for grocery store owners and managers. Current IT systems for pickup and delivery are already overwhelmed so urgent changes would need to be made to the software to handle the increase in demand given the reduction of in-store shoppers. Store managers also point out that there would still be a large number of people in-store to pick the orders from the shelves, and others say that the cost is simply too high and their margins don’t allow them to employ people to pick, pack and deliver the food.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues its grip on the world, it will be interesting to watch which food retail stores are forced to act differently, which choose to act differently and which continue to behave the same.