Shoppers line up 6 feet apart to check out April 10 at the Legion Square Market in South Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)
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As the number of those infected with COVID-19 continues to climb in Maine, some of the only businesses still open are grocery stores, supermarkets and big-box stores – all considered essential businesses.

But that means these stores continue to see high traffic, despite a stay-at-home order from Gov. Janet Mills. And in Maine as across the country, workers in these stores are testing positive for COVID-19.

Supermarket chains Hannaford and Shaw’s have each had workers in Maine stores test positive for the coronavirus, which can result in serious and often fatal illness.

Cashier Sarah Jones at the checkout counter at the Legion Square Market in South Portland on April 10. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

A report from the United Food and Commercial Workers Union sent to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, more than 1,500 grocery store workers across the country have tested positive for the virus; 30 have died.

According to Phil Lempert, a national marketing and retail analyst who is the founder and editor of The Lempert Report and SupermarketGuru.com, the UFCW told the CDC all employers and retailers in the industry need to provide gloves and surgical masks to their workers and must insist customers wear gloves and masks when entering stores. The union also said stores should limit the number of customers at a given time.

Lempert said this will likely become a universal sentiment. Speaking from Los Angeles, he noted the governor of California has issued a request for citizens to wear masks any time they are out in public.

“I think we’re going to see that all over,” Lempert said.

‘Scared customers, scared employees’

Lempert also said the trend of stores opening later and closing earlier, which stores in Maine have done, provides ample time for proper sanitization. He said many stores are also installing checkout-aisle plexiglass shields between customers and workers.

“We have scared customers and scared employees,” he said.

But supermarkets and big-box stores remain open and are so busy that they are trying to hire thousands of employees. Walmart, for example, is seeking to add 150,000 workers around the country. Many of these retailers are offering higher wages — as much as an additional $2 per hour.

That may not be enough, however, to lure fearful people to work at the stores, even if they need jobs.

“For an out-of-work person, they might just say ‘I might just sit home and collect unemployment’ because it’s not worth the risk of going to work in a supermarket because of the stories they are hearing,” Lempert said.

So that $2 is a fine start, he said, but these stores need to be serious about providing the proper personal protective equipment to their employees, whether they are temporary or full time.

A sign explains the new coronavirus policies at the Hannaford supermarket on Cottage Road in South Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

“There’s a lot of pressure, a lot more now than there was two or three weeks ago,” Lempert said.

A store’s reaction to an employee testing positive for the virus is equally important, he said. 

For example, Trader Joe’s will shut a store immediately if an employee tests positive. That store won’t reopen until the store is fully cleaned, even if it takes days. Walmart is taking the temperature of all its employees on a daily basis as they come to work. If an employee has a fever-like temperature, they are sent home with pay.

“There’s a lot of concern from an employee standpoint to really control this,” Lempert said.

So while a bonus may seem nice, he said it’s cautious measures like these that can go a long way toward getting those temporary workers who otherwise might just stay home to come in and apply for jobs.

“People are going to have to feel safe, and that’s the gloves and the protective masks,” Lempert said. “Everybody is clamoring to get those masks, and if you don’t have it, it’s a problem.”

He said the Publix chain, more common in the south, has left the decision of requiring employees to wear gloves and masks up to each individual store’s manager.

“I think that sends the wrong signal,” Lempert said. “I think you need a corporate-wide mandate. … Employees will feel a lot safer with a store they know is really trying to control this.”

Lempert said he was recently in a Ralph’s store in California when he heard an intercom announcement for employees to begin the regular sanitization tasks they do every 30 minutes.

“That’s a really powerful signal to shoppers that says, ‘Wow, this store really does care about me,’” he said.

These are efforts that stores are making in Maine, too. 

Stronger responses

Hannaford’s, Shaw’s and Trader Joe’s limit the number of customers allowed in their stores. They have created early hours for senior citizens to go shopping to avoid the crowds. They don’t allow shoppers to use reusable bags. Hannaford stores have installed those plexiglass shields to protect cashiers from shoppers.

And it’s not just the large, chain stores taking these actions. Smaller, local stores are duplicating these efforts and some have taken even more aggressive stances.

A sign at the entrance to the Legion Square Market in South Portland explains the precautions required of shoppers. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Legion Square Market in South Portland requires all customers to use hand sanitizer as they come into the store, and then put on gloves before shopping. The gloves must be thrown away as they leave the store. Even if a customer arrives already wearing gloves, they have to follow these steps.

Mike Cardinal, the store manager, said they realized early on how slow responses to the threat could leave workers vulnerable. So in order to be able to remain open, they knew the store had to take action.

“We decided to take it into our hands to be safe,” Cardinal said.

He said Legion Square was lucky to have a considerable amount of deli gloves and hand sanitizer, which aren’t used by hospitals.

“We figured we might as well use the resources we have,” Cardinal said. “We just figured it was important and we had access and it didn’t affect any supply-chain issues.”

For the most part, he said customers are understanding and compliant with the request. There has been some pushback, but he estimated about 98 percent of customers understand and comply.

As a result of their more aggressive approach, Cardinal said they have seen more business than expected, likely from people coming to Legion Square instead of the larger stores, because of the additional safety measures.

“We get customers in and out in 20 minutes,” he said.

As for a statewide response, Gov. Mills last week said she has had discussions with a union representing grocery workers, but hasn’t had time to analyze those discussions.

‘This is far from over’

Lempert, the industry analyst, said the global pandemic will likely change the way people not only look at grocery stores but also how they see the food industry as a whole.

“I think what comes out of this is that all the supermarket retailers are going to have a whole new standard as it relates to sanitization,” he said. “Supermarkets are changed forever, what they are doing now is preparing for a whole new way of making sure people are safe.”

The Legion Square Market on Ocean Street in South Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

He said the things some stores have done, such as placing markers on the floor to indicate a 6-foot barrier between customers, will create a lasting social distancing for people even when the markers are gone.

He said social distancing mindsets will continue, even outside of grocery stores; he expects to see restaurants have fewer tables and therefore fewer patrons dining inside at the same time. 

Additionally, although he expects there to be a deluge on restaurants once people are allowed to return, he also said people will have changed their behaviors during this period of social distancing and self-quarantine. People will have become accustomed to cooking at home and may keep up that activity. And that will have an impact on grocery stores since people will not only be buying more food, but healthier foods.

Lempert said he doesn’t expect things to go back to normal anytime soon. While the 1,500 workers infected and 30 workers who died from COVID-19 is a high number, he said it’s difficult to see a situation where those numbers don’t change.

“People have to be diligent; people can’t go back to normal,” he said. “People still need to wear masks.”

He said some retailers he has spoken to have said they don’t see any situation where life returns to normal before January. He said less dense areas, such as Maine, may be in a better spot, but people still need to take appropriate steps, such as wearing protective gear and not crowding stores.

“People need to be diligent,” he said “This is far from over. We need to hear what the medical community, what the scientific community is saying.”

He also said the country shouldn’t rush to reopen the economy.

“Yeah, we are heading for a recession,” Lempert said. “But that’s better than a whole bunch more people dying.”