Two weeks ago, retailers began putting out bottles of hand sanitizer and cleaning check lanes once every 30 minutes.
Now, that’s not nearly enough.
As the novel coronavirus continues to spread across communities, stores around the Twin Cities are stepping up safety measures to protect workers and customers as they have been swamped by residents stocking up on supplies.
Minneapolis-based Target, for example, said Wednesday morning that workers will now clean checkout lanes after every transaction and will enforce social-distancing guidelines.
But some front-line employees who are increasingly worried that their jobs put them at risk say retailers should be doing even more to keep them safe such as providing them with gloves and masks.
Josh Resnik, CEO of the Wedge and Linden Hills co-ops, said his team has made “50 times” as many decisions in the last week to figure out how best to respond to the coronavirus, including limiting the number of customers in the store to 75.
“All of the decisions we’re trying to make is balancing how do we provide an important service for the community and how do we keep our staff safe and healthy,” he said.
Hy-Vee and the Wedge and Linden Hills co-ops have put up transparent shields at check lanes to help block customers’ coughs and sneezes from reaching cashiers. Lunds & Byerlys and Kowalski’s are hustling to put up similar partitions. Walmart said it will get these “sneeze guards” up in the next two to three weeks.
Some stores are regulating the number of customers who can be inside at one time. Some Trader Joe’s locations, for example, are limiting access to 20 customers.
Others are beginning to ask customers to leave reusable bags at home and are temporarily suspending returns because items could be contaminated. Still, workers are worried.
“They’re very anxious — and they have every right in the world to feel anxious,” Matthew Utecht, president of Local 663 of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, said of the Minnesota grocery store workers he represents.
“When you’re a cashier at a food store, you don’t have the luxury of 6-foot social distancing,” he said. “It’s what I call hand-to-hand combat. I don’t know that there’s any way to completely protect them from the public.”
He and other union leaders have been in frequent contact with grocery stores about their safety measures. They’re also asking Gov. Tim Walz to reclassify grocery store workers as tier 1 employees, which would put them in the same category as police officers and firefighters in terms of getting direct access to services such as day care.
Evie Odden, a part-time cashier at the Wedge, said she still feels exposed to customers despite the new plexiglass partitions. She’s especially concerned about some of her co-workers who have compromised immune systems.
“They are still coming in because they need to make the rent,” she said.
Some employees have been pushing employers to allow them to wear protective gear, and there has been movement on this front. Target told workers late last week they can wear masks and gloves if they have their own. Kowalski’s is now providing all employees with gloves and is also making them available in entryways and other parts of the store for customers to use if they wish.
After critics raised concerns about pharmacists’ exposure to sick patients, CVS said this week that it has procured face masks and gloves that it is sending to all stores by the end of this week for employees to use.
Union leaders also are pushing for more protective gear for grocery workers, but even they acknowledge the mask issue is a tricky one.
“It’s hard to demand something from the employers that we can’t get for front-line nurses and providers,” said Jennifer Christensen, president of the UFCW Local 1189.
Older employees or those with underlying health conditions, or those who have vulnerable family members living with them at home, have been especially interested in getting access to masks and gloves.
At the same time, grocery workers appreciate the temporary pay increases many stores announced last week and have welcomed extra steps to encourage social distancing and more frequent cleaning, Christensen added.
Last week, Hy-Vee began asking customers not to bring in reusable bags until further notice since it’s difficult to “monitor their cleanliness.”
Target also said it will temporarily stop handling and selling reusable bags “out of an abundance of caution” starting on Thursday and will waive any local bag fees. If customers want to use their reusable bags, they will be asked to pack the items themselves.
Meanwhile, the city of Minneapolis, which instituted a 5-cent bag surcharge on plastic bags in January, is not considering suspending that fee.
“The latest information we have from [Centers for Disease Control and Minnesota Department of Health] is that, although it is possible to acquire COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching your own mouth, nose or eyes, this is not believed to be the primary way that the virus is spreading,” Sarah McKenzie, a city spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.
In the coming days, Kowalski’s will be adding temporary hot-water hand-washing stations near checkout lanes for customers and cashiers to use. Lunds & Byerlys is also now cleaning checkout lanes after every transaction as Target is doing.
Both retailers are also temporarily not taking returns. Target will suspend returns starting Thursday for three weeks, while giving an extended return window afterward once the suspension is lifted.
“We meet almost every day and talk about additional steps we should consider and evaluate,” Target CEO Brian Cornell told reporters on a conference call. “So we’ll continue to monitor the situation and make the appropriate changes accordingly.”
Some employees have been taking it upon themselves to mark out 6 feet apart with tape on the floor at checkout lanes. Now many stores are doing so chainwide, as well as spacing out which checkout lanes are open.
In a message to customers Tuesday, Tres Lund, CEO of Lunds & Byerlys, also asked customers to be “mindful” of the number of people coming into stores and to consider limiting it to just the person buying groceries.
While many other grocery stores have reduced their hours so employees have more time to clean and restock, the Wedge hasn’t done that yet because they also want to spread out the shopping.
“But that has been one of the things that’s been discussed,” said Resnik, the co-op’s CEO.
Kavita Kumar • 612-673-4113