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Baltimore grocers attempt to protect most vulnerable from coronavirus with special hours to mixed results

Several regional grocery chains have designated certain hours as exclusive times for seniors, pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems to shop for food and other essentials during the coronavirus outbreak.

Giant Food, Safeway, Dollar General, Target and others seek to limit certain populations’ exposure to crowds as federal and state officials encourage people to practice social distancing as a means of slowing the spread of COVID-19, the highly contagious upper respiratory disease. In Maryland, one Prince George’s County man in his 60s has died from the novel coronavirus, and at least 149 others have tested positive for it.

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Though children can contract it, the coronavirus appears to pose more of a threat to those over 60 and those with underlying health issues including heart disease, diabetes and lung disease. Social distancing measures designed to safeguard lives and keep the healthcare system afloat have led to the mass closures of schools, retail stores, restaurants and offices as essential services such as groceries, banks and pharmacies remain open.

But, while grocers’ special hours, which vary between chains, may be well-intentioned, some shoppers felt no safer or better protected.

“I couldn’t maintain a proper social distance,” said Bonnie Kind, 64, who went to the Giant in Pikesville at 6 a.m. Friday in search of fresh produce and meats. She ended up leaving her shopping cart and walking out of the store.

Roberta Miller, 74, loads her items at the checkout at a Stop & Shop supermarket during hours open daily only for seniors Thursday, March 19, 2020, in North Providence, R.I. This week grocery store chains and other retailers began offering special shopping hours for seniors and other groups considered the most vulnerable to the new coronavirus. The dedicated shopping times are designed to allow seniors, pregnant women and people with underlying health conditions to shop among smaller crowds and reduce their chances of acquiring the virus. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Roberta Miller, 74, loads her items at the checkout at a Stop & Shop supermarket during hours open daily only for seniors Thursday, March 19, 2020, in North Providence, R.I. This week grocery store chains and other retailers began offering special shopping hours for seniors and other groups considered the most vulnerable to the new coronavirus. The dedicated shopping times are designed to allow seniors, pregnant women and people with underlying health conditions to shop among smaller crowds and reduce their chances of acquiring the virus. (AP Photo/David Goldman)(David Goldman/AP)

“People were on top of each other and literally pressing against me,” she said. “People in line to check out were all bunched together.”

Kind said Giant staffers were restocking the shelves as shoppers moved carts through the aisles.

“It was poor planning on their part,” she said. “And there were people there who were younger ages. There was no one there enforcing it."

A representative from Giant Food did not respond to a request for comment. In a Wednesday announcement, the regional grocer said it would “continue to work on restocking our shelves” and will prepare “to serve to the best of our ability.”

In a previous Baltimore Sun interview, Ira Kress, interim president of Giant Food, said there was no food or supply shortage. Rather, stores just need time to replenish their supplies, he said, with demand surging over the last two weeks and causing heavy foot traffic and long lines.

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“We are reacting to the situation as fast as we can. ... The grocery industry is reacting, and we will be able to ramp up to meet the increased demand of our customers," he said.

Sharon Dow, a Winsdor Mill resident, said that while she did not find everything she wanted — she had hoped to snag some cleaning supplies, such as Clorox and Lysol products — she did buy bagels, orange juice and steak.

She said she also felt frustrated about the crowd size, which she had hoped would be smaller.

“The population in the neighborhood tends to be older,” said Dow, 68.

Bill Matthews, 72, meanwhile, thought the staff handled the situation as best they could. He had hoped to find more meat in stock, but said he managed to spend more than $100 anyway.

“They’re not going to have everything,” the Randallstown resident said. “But the staff, they were real cool.”

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A little before 8 a.m. Thursday, a steady stream of customers could be seen at the Safeway in Fells Point. The store announced it would be open from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. for seniors and those vulnerable to the coronavirus on Tuesdays and Thursdays. While people still were pulling into the parking lot around 8 a.m., there was no frantic rush for groceries.

Younger shoppers also could be seen walking into the Fells Point Safeway at 8 a.m., despite the senior- and vulnerable population-specific shopping hours.

Shoppers wait in the checkout line at a Stop & Shop supermarket during hours open daily only for seniors Thursday, March 19, 2020, in North Providence, R.I. This week grocery store chains and other retailers began offering special shopping hours for seniors and other groups considered the most vulnerable to the new coronavirus. The dedicated shopping times are designed to allow seniors, pregnant women and people with underlying health conditions to shop among smaller crowds and reduce their chances of acquiring the virus. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Shoppers wait in the checkout line at a Stop & Shop supermarket during hours open daily only for seniors Thursday, March 19, 2020, in North Providence, R.I. This week grocery store chains and other retailers began offering special shopping hours for seniors and other groups considered the most vulnerable to the new coronavirus. The dedicated shopping times are designed to allow seniors, pregnant women and people with underlying health conditions to shop among smaller crowds and reduce their chances of acquiring the virus. (AP Photo/David Goldman)(David Goldman/AP)

At least one younger shopper wore a mask and there were clear attempts inside the store to practice some amount of social distancing.

Eric Welsh, 59, stopped at the Safeway to stock up on a few things, particularly Diet Coke.

As he loaded up his vehicle, he said he was frustrated by the number of younger shoppers. While the shopping experience itself wasn’t a hassle, with only a few shelves that needed to be restocked, he said he wanted to see the policy enforced more.

Asked whether he felt retailers would self-police and try to keep younger adults away, he pointed to another man in the parking lot who appeared younger than him.

"Apparently not," he said.

A Safeway representative said the grocer is relying on customers to be mindful about when they shop.

“We’re not going to be enforcing the program so much as we’re appealing to our customers to respect the hours and really think about those in need,” spokeswoman Beth Goldberg said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Lorraine Mirabella contributed to this article.

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