During these last few weeks, grocery stores have been really the only place American’s have been allowed to go because they are a necessity. Even in the most restrictive social-distancing states, people still need food. If you’re feeling cabin fever — you think, “I’m going to the grocery store!”
Until now. Some states are requiring all people in public to wear face masks. I bet you never envisioned going to the grocery store and seeing everyone wearing masks. It’s like we are trapped in a Sci-Fi movie. This is because, as many health experts predicted, reports of grocery store workers are testing positive for COVID-19. A Trader Joe’s employee in Seattle, King Spooner employee in Denver, two Fred Meyers one in Monroe, Washington, and the other in Portland, Oregon. Two workers from Whole Foods in New York, where thousands of people go to every day.
It does not seem like a large number of grocery workers have tested positive for the virus. The United Food and Commerical Workers Union, which represents the employees of many grocery stores in the United States, states that only six members have tested positive for the novel coronavirus. But, many might have the virus and do not show any symptoms and have yet to be tested. It might have been wishful thinking to believe you were safe from getting the virus at the grocery store, but now the risk has been confirmed. You can get the virus at the grocery store.
The main concern is other people, not the actual food. You might worry about catching the virus from touching the same items and food the infected people touched, but health experts say that transmission through food or wrappings is avoidable. Research states that the virus can live on cardboard food packaging for a day, plastic for many days, but it becomes less infectious. The biggest concern should be shopping carts, but most grocery stores are wiping them down and providing hand sanitizer. If the store does not, make sure to wipe down the cart before you use it.
“My recommendation is just to wash your hands after you handle external packaging,” Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University, says. “High-touch” objects such as shopping-cart handles are a bigger concern, but many stores have provided sanitizing wipes for those.
Coughing humans are a more significant concern. This is less of a risk for shoppers, who can go at lower traffic hours or use self-checkout. The cashiers, however, stand just a few feet away from hundreds a day to thousands a week of customers. They could also contract the virus through money or food the customer touches.
“If the customer coughs or sneezes near an employee while in line, the likelihood of transmitting the virus through respiratory droplets is also high,” says Brandon Brown, a professor at UC Riverside who has studied infectious diseases.
This has put grocery store workers in a hard position. They are essential workers, and the government cannot shut down grocery stores. But this endangers lower-paid workers who must go to work to support their families.
“To try to mitigate this threat, workers at various grocery stores have asked for face masks,” says Hilary Thesmar of the Food Industry Association (FMI). “FMI requested masks for workers from the federal government, but it hasn’t been able to procure them, because there’s a national shortage and the priority is healthcare workers.”
Marc Perrone, the president of the UFCW, is pushing for the union to be considered as important as healthcare workers in receiving masks and gloves to keep their workers safe.
A Trader Joe’s employee in New York, who wanted to remain anonymous, said workers at their store have been told they are not allowed to wear gloves at the registers. “They don’t want to alter the appearance of normalcy,.” A spokesperson for Trader Joe’s denied this, stating in an email, “While the CDC does not recommend the use of gloves in a retail setting, our Crew Members may choose to wear them.”
Grocery stores are trying their best to keep customers and employees as safe as possible. Some have installed sneeze guards at the registers, they ask their workers to wash their hands more frequently, added hand sanitizer to each station and require that the belt be cleaned after each person.
Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Kroger, Stop & Shop, and Target all offer two weeks of paid time off for workers who test positive for COVID-19 or are placed into quarantine.
Employees feel that grocery stores are not doing enough to care for their employees. Many employees were appalled when Whole Foods suggested that employees donate their paid time off to another. Whole food also gave employees a $2 raise through April, but is that enough to risk their health?
A Whole Foods employee in Atlanta, who was quarantined and requested that he remain anonymous to not receive retaliation for speaking out, thinks he will be paid for the 14 days the doctors told him to stay home, but he feels guilty. There is a certain culture in retail “if you feel good enough to work, you need to work. We all know what it feels like when there are not enough people there.” The stores are highly understaffed, and the employees do not have enough time to sanitize and wash their hands during their shift properly.
Whole Foods stated, “We have implemented enhanced daily cleanliness and sanitation protocols across all stores and facilities,” and “we are operating under social distancing guidelines in our stores and facilities, ensuring that interaction among team members and between team members and customers can happen at a safe distance.”
Grocery stores might able to try and do more to protect employees, but they will never be completely safe from the novel coronavirus. People can infect others when they are not showing any symptoms. It is hard to maintain social distancing standards in small aisles of the grocery store. With workers becoming sick, this proves it.
Grocery shopping has become America’s pastime in these crazy times, and we need to be extra cautious while shopping.Related: COVID-19 Worldwide Tracker