Some area residents would like what used to be a routine shopping trip for groceries or home supplies to feel less like walking a tightrope. And at least one local grocery store worker would appreciate it if customers would take steps to make his job feel safer, too.
An executive order from Gov. Roy Cooper required retailers across North Carolina that are allowed to be open to adopt stricter standards to reduce the chances of COVID-19 in their stores beginning April 13. It appears the order has resulted in less variation from store to store in the Asheville area in measures to fight the virus as some retailers adopted steps others had put in place days or weeks before.
Cooper directed stores to limit the number of customers in the building, mark off checkout queues and other high-traffic areas to encourage customers to stay 6 feet apart, do the same for areas where customers must wait to go inside and frequently clean and disinfect high-touch areas.
Behind the mask
Some customers wonder why some retailers don’t take things a step further and require all of their employees to wear face masks on the job. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began recommending April 3 that everyone wear cloth masks or something similar while out in public — while leaving the precious supply of N95 and surgical masks for health professionals. Cooper’s order also encourages retail workers to use cloth masks.
“A cloth face covering is not intended to protect the wearer, but it may prevent the spread of virus from the wearer to others,” the CDC says. That’s especially important if the wearer has COVID-19 and doesn’t know it.
Experts are divided over how much of a benefit homemade cloth masks provide. Some say they may provide a false sense of security and encourage people to slack off on other measures like social distancing or hand-washing. Advocates say the coverings block some droplets produced when people cough, sneeze or talk and to a lesser degree lower the chances that the wearer will breathe in droplets containing the COVID-19 virus. Some say a mask can’t hurt and probably helps — and that wearers should also continue other steps to prevent spreading the virus.
A reporter who visited several stores on the east and south sides of Asheville April 14 and 15 found that retailers were using tape and signs to help customers practice social distancing, and at least some were monitoring the number of customers in their buildings. Tape on the floor usually marked spots where customers should wait to check out, and signs and tape showed which direction traffic should flow through many store aisles.
But only a quarter to a third of retail workers visible had masks on.
That street runs in both directions: A lot of customers were not wearing masks, either, although the proportion of shoppers with them was typically higher than that of retail workers. Perhaps half wore masks and half didn’t.
North Asheville resident Christopher Pratt says the presence of masks will be a big influence on where he shops for some time. “We’re looking at the long haul here. If I’m going to the grocery store in the next few months, I want to see masks,” he says.
‘Terrifying’ at first
While many retailers have been shut down during the pandemic, these are also stressful times for retailers allowed to stay open. In North Carolina, grocers, drugstores and hardware and home improvement stores are among those considered essential.
Posts on social media in the Asheville area complain that this or that store is not doing enough to combat COVID-19, or that workers or customers are ignoring social distancing guidelines. Other posts offer appreciation of store workers and praise for retailers and sanitation steps they have taken.
Chain retailers and some smaller stores have responded to concerns with measures like limiting store hours to provide more cleaning time and less strain on staff, installing clear shields at checkout stations, sanitizing shopping carts and allowing customers to order remotely and pick up items outside stores. Many have given staffers raises, bonuses and expanded sick time.
Black Mountain-based grocery chain Ingles Markets is hiring additional workers “due to the increased volume of customers, to ensure our stores are vigorously cleaned and to meet current social distancing guidelines,” Chief Financial Officer Ron Freeman says. “We have been pleased with the response we have gotten and are glad to be hiring when so many have lost their jobs.” Job seekers may visit ingles-markets.com.
People at two local grocery stores noted for acting early in the pandemic said the changes they made have helped customers and workers.
At the Trader Joe’s on Merrimon Avenue, worker Robert Maddix says, “The initial week or two of that panic was terrifying” for most store workers.
The store is smaller than a typical grocery store, he notes. “The measures we took we pretty much had to take because we were pretty much on top of each other.” Workers erected clear plastic “sneeze guards” at cash registers, limited the number of customers who could be in the store at any one time well before Cooper mandated that step and began sanitizing shopping carts between customers.
After the CDC’s mask recommendation came out, three employees brought their sewing machines into the store and made masks, which every employee now wears, Maddix says.
Bobby Sullivan, general manager at French Broad Food Co-op on Biltmore Avenue, describes a somewhat similar response, saying it was “vindicating” to see Cooper order or recommend changes his store made of its own accord some time ago.
Clear shields went up at cash registers early on, workers moved checkout stations to create more space between them, the store switched from a self-service system for bulk food to having an employee fill those orders, and the co-op quickly adopted a limit on the number of customers allowed in the store.
After initial difficulty finding a supplier, the co-op bought “nonmedical” face masks from a Canadian company, and all employees are required to wear them, Sullivan says. They are also for sale at the store. He called it “alarming” that many workers at other retailers are not wearing similar masks.
Government officials have sent differing signals on whether ordinary people should wear masks. The CDC’s April 3 recommendation in favor was a U-turn from its previous position.
Some retail chains with stores in the Asheville area say they are supplying some workers with masks and some cited shortages of masks as a challenge.
At Ingles, “Our store associates are encouraged to wear face coverings, and we are pursuing a number of options to make that easier for them to do so,” Freeman says. “Guidelines on masks and other COVID-19 recommendations will continue to evolve. The safety of our customers and associates, as well as the safe operation of our stores, is our top priority during this crisis, and we will continue to evaluate all options.”
Lowe’s says on its website that it is “making masks and gloves available to all associates in the workplace who want them.” The Home Depot says it is giving “nonmedical” masks to workers in areas where government is requiring them and trying to obtain masks for employees at other stores. Grocery chain Publix says it is giving masks to workers “until our supplies are depleted.”
Maddix says he feels Trader Joe’s is taking important steps to protect him and other employees. Still, “Just going to work every day, I feel like I’m exposing myself,” he says.
Those steps are a competitive advantage for the chain, Maddix says. “We’ve had a lot of customers come to us because we are taking safety measures … where some grocery stores are not taking it as seriously,” he says.
Pratt says he appreciates the steps he has seen retailers take and suggests that more masks would both boost business and slow the spread of COVID-19.
“This is a situation that’s not going to go away, and we’ve got to look after each other,” he says.