Businesses are attempting to minimize the chance of exposure to the novel coronavirus to keep employees and customers safe.
As Jeffrey Reid watched long lines of customers snake down the aisles at the Giant Food in Silver Spring this week, the 54-year-old supermarket employee worried for their health, as well as his own.
“This is not social distancing at all," he said, referring to medical experts’ advice to stay home and avoid contact with crowds to contain the spread of the new coronavirus.
Reid, who has worked behind the counter at the Giant’s meat and seafood departments for 12 years, is among the many customer-facing workers at Maryland supermarkets and other workplaces that haven’t closed, but whose employees cannot work remotely from home — leaving them to navigate the potential risks of being exposed to COVID-19 at work.
“I have to go to work,” the Prince George’s County resident said. “I’ve got bills that have to be paid. I’m doing everything in my power to be aware of things and not take this thing for granted — washing my hands, wearing gloves, using hand sanitizer. ... But this is my job. This is what I do.
"You just can’t worry about the old horse being blind. You’ve just got to load up that wagon.”
A union that represents him and other grocery workers in Maryland is asking the stores to boost sick pay, offer hazard pay, make gloves and masks available to those who want them, and limit the number of customers permitted in a store at a time as shoppers flock to pick up coronavirus provisions.
The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400, which represents workers at Giant Food, Safeway and Shoppers in Maryland’s Washington suburbs, is asking grocers to consider putting up barriers in stores to separate customers in lines and give cashiers more space, said Jonathan Williams, a union spokesman.
The union also wants workers to get a minimum of 14 days of sick leave.
“Our biggest priority is access to sick leave, so we don’t have people come to work sick,” Williams said. “People are taking a big risk coming to work.”
Grocery workers should be designated as emergency critical and first responders, said Jason Chorpenning, president of UFCW Local 27, which represents more than 20,000 of them in Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, including those in the Baltimore area.
Local 27 wants the government to provide supermarket employees with protective equipment, free coronavirus testing, protections against unfair termination or discrimination for any exposed workers, unemployment benefits for displaced workers and additional aid to help low-income families take care of their children, he said.
“Our members are on the front lines of the coronavirus outbreak and they need our financial support,” Chorpenning said. “They are performing an essential role during this crisis, and they must be able to do their jobs to meet the explosive demand for health and food.”
Supermarkets are making some changes in the face of the global pandemic.
Shoppers has temporarily increased its workers’ wages and changed overtime rules, among other measures, said Jeffrey Swanson, a spokesman for United Natural Foods, the grocer’s parent company. All hourly workers will receive temporary state-of-emergency bonuses on top of their regular wages and overtime hours for time worked from March 15 to April 11, he said.
Giant Food will offer a dedicated hour — 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. — for customers 60 and over and those with compromised immune systems “for this vulnerable population to shop and practice social distancing,” the Baltimore region’s largest grocer announced Wednesday. Giant has sick leave policies in place and is “evaluating additional ways to recognize and reward our associates,” spokesman Daniel Wolk said in a statement.
Safeway is offering 14 days of paid sick leave “should someone be diagnosed or asked to self-quarantine,” spokeswoman Beth Goldberg said.
“We are following all guidance provided by the CDC and food safety officials, and we will continue to look to them for direction on that matter,” she said in a statement.
Despite the rush of customers, Giant workers are coming in for their shifts and not calling out sick with any more frequency than usual, said Ira Kress, the company’s interim president.
“They’re working extremely hard, but their spirits are extremely high,” Kress said after visiting stores Tuesday afternoon.
He said workers are being reminded throughout their shifts to wash their hands frequently and to stay home or go home if they feel sick, the top CDC guidelines. Employees in deli, meat and other departments that handle food are continuing to wear food handling certified gloves, but cashiers and others have asked for and are being given the option to wear latex gloves if they choose.
“That’s not recommended by the CDC, but we are allowing that based on associate interest,” Kress said.
And sanitation has become a bigger part of everyone’s job, with cashiers now wiping down pin pads and self-scan stations between every transaction and workers cleaning register belts and produce and deli scales more frequently, he said.
Giant has opted not to reduce its hours, as some grocers have done, believing that it helps to spread the volume of customers throughout a longer period of time.
Weis supermarkets have shut down self-serve salad, olive and soup bars, and in-store dining cafes and are closing stores two hours earlier, at 9 p.m., to focus on cleaning and restocking shelves. The company is reinforcing CDC sanitation guidelines and asking workers to stay home if they’re sick.
Workers are spending more time cleaning stores, including carts, baskets, frozen door handles, the tops of service department cases, checkout lanes, self-scan units and credit-debit terminals.
“Our associates — they’ve risen to the occasion during the past 10 days,” said Dennis Curtin, a Weis spokesman. “Our associates have the option of working additional hours, an option many have taken.”
To protect their employees from COVID-19, which has sickened more than 218,000 and killed more than 8,800 globally, a variety of businesses are cutting back hours, making hand sanitizer available and having workers spend extra time wiping down all high-touch surfaces.
Bryan Okereke waited in one of the seven chairs at the empty Reflection Eternal Barbershop in Baltimore’s Barclay neighborhood Tuesday afternoon.
How do you cut hair while maintaining social distancing? You don’t — or at least not as much, the 26-year-old barber said.
“Over these last couple weeks there’s been a decline, but we expected that, knowing what’s going on,” Okereke said. “As far as precautions, we’re just wiping chairs down a little more often than we usually do. We always sanitize our clippers and everything, but just being a little more sanitary overall, just so there’s no spread.”
Narasimha Yanamaddi has the relative luxury of a glass pane between himself and his customers at Midtown Discount Pharmacy.
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But closing the Baltimore pharmacy isn’t an option, especially during a public health crisis, and many customers pay with cash, requiring him to change gloves often throughout the day.
Customers have been calling weeks ahead of time and requesting extra amounts of their prescriptions, hoping to stock up in case officials order everyone to stay home for an extended amount of time, the pharmacist said. He sold out of four cases of hand sanitizer — normally about a month’s worth — in a week.
“Everybody’s panicked," Yanamaddi said. "So much panic. We’ve never had this kind of situation before.”
The chairs were up on the tables at the Terra Café while Tyrone Murphy mopped the floor wearing a pair of black latex gloves, like all of the restaurant’s employees one afternoon this week.
But the jerk and curry chicken, homemade macaroni and cheese, vegan greens, turkey burgers, rice pilaf, bread pudding and fried fish were still cooking in the kitchen. The restaurant, unable to seat diners, is offering its full menu for pickup and delivery, owner Terence Dickson said.