An employee at a Giant supermarket in Largo has died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, while a worker at the grocery chain’s Dundalk store has tested positive, the company confirmed Tuesday.
Giant, Safeway, Weis Markets and other food retailers also said they are intensifying efforts to prevent the virus from spreading in their stores as concern has grown over the safety of staff and customers in supermarkets.
“We are saddened to confirm that a store associate from our Campus Way South location in Largo passed away from COVID-19,” Giant said in a statement. “We were informed of her passing on Thursday morning by her family. We can only imagine the heartache they are experiencing and have our support during this difficult time.”
The employee, who Giant did not identify, had not worked at the store since March 16, and the grocer learned she was sick on March 28. Giant said it does not believe other workers or customers are at risk, but has followed health authorities’ guidance and performed additional disinfecting at the Largo store.
The Dundalk Giant employee who tested positive has not worked at the Merritt Boulevard store since March 13, the company said. The employee and others who worked with that person were required to self-quarantine and will receive sick pay during their time out.
Both Giant and Safeway said Tuesday that they will begin limiting the number of customers allowed in stores, switch to one-way flow of traffic in aisles and encouraging customers to shop with as few family members as possible. Giant said it is offering employees face shields and encouraging them to follow CDC guidelines and wear face masks and other protective equipment. Harris Teeter said Wednesday it will begin limiting the number of customers as well, to half of building code capacity.
Weis Markets announced Friday that it has ordered large quantities of plastic face shields, reusable face masks, disposable surgical masks and latex gloves for its workforce. And the Pennsylvania-based chain also is temporarily suspending the sale of deli meat sliced to order and loose bakery items, closing self-serve salad, olive and soup bars, and banning the use of personal reusable bags to reduce “vulnerable touch points."
Such measures follow others that many retailers already had taken, such as placing floor markers at checkout lines and elsewhere to encourage social distancing, installing plexiglass shields at checkouts and service departments, sanitizing surfaces more frequently and adjusting store hours.
But protective measures still don’t go far enough, some believe, especially as deaths of workers in supermarkets and discount stores are beginning to be reported around the country. Besides the Giant worker, others include an employee at a Trader Joe’s in Scarsdale, New York, and two Walmart workers from one store in the Chicago area.
“People are already sick and dying from working in these stores,” said Jonathan Williams, a spokesman for Local 400 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents Giant and Safeway workers in the Washington suburbs. “We don’t want to wait for more deaths to occur. We need immediate action right now.”
The union is calling on food retailers to place limits of 10 customers per 10,000 square feet, or roughly 30 to 50 at a time, with no more than 50 in a store.
“Many of our employers are making progress in the right direction, but they’re not quite going far enough and not fast enough,” Williams said. “They are exposed to hundreds of customers a day, thousands in weeks, and the risk of exposure is higher. We worry about grocery stores and members becoming vectors for disease.”
The union would like to see Gov. Larry Hogan and the governors of surrounding states declare grocery workers first responders, making them eligible for COVID-19 testing. Members need to know whether they are infected, even if they’re not sick, so they can self-quarantine, get access to sick leave and prevent the spread of the virus.
Dave Fox, a 78-year-old retired Air Force heath care administrator, has been trying to avoid the grocery store altogether and order groceries for delivery online.
But during one of his infrequent trips, to a Giant in Parole, he noticed several shoppers and employees not wearing masks. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently recommended that everyone wear masks when leaving the house.
“A hell of a lot of customers in there didn’t have protective masks on,” said Fox, who lives in Arnold.
Fox, for one, believes the governor, who has closed nonessential businesses and ordered people to stay home except for essential activities, ought to require that face masks be worn by all who enter grocery stores.
“If everybody’s wearing masks,” Fox said, “there’s less of a chance of the virus spreading.”
At Giant stores starting Thursday, occupancy will be limited to 20% of a store’s overall capacity, while new floor arrow markers will direct customers through the one-way aisles. Giant will have employees stationed at store entrances to manage occupancy limits.
“We are continuing to learn and adapt to the new ways of working during this challenging time and believe that these additional measures will allow us to further promote safe social distancing practices in our aisles to keep our customers and associates safe,” said Ira Kress, Giant’s interim president, in an announcement.
Safeway’s occupancy limits will take effect Friday. No more than one person per 150 square feet will be allowed in during normal business hours and one person per 300 square feet during special hours reserved for seniors, Tuesdays and Thursdays from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m.
Safeway also is asking shoppers and vendors to self-screen and not to enter a store if a member of the household has been diagnosed with or is suspected to have COVID-19 or if they have symptoms such as a cough, fever or shortness of breath. Parent company Albertsons is in the process of buying masks for all front-line workers.
The ALDI grocery chain said it has started to provide personal protective equipment to employees who request it, distributing gloves and beginning to ship masks to stores "as supplies permit.” Customers also will keep the same cart throughout checkout to help reduce the potential for coronavirus transmission.
Whole Foods, one of several companies that has boosted employees wages, is allowing workers to wear masks. The chain said on its website that it’s implemented daily temperature screenings for employees and Prime Now Shoppers at its stores.
A spokesman for Whole Foods said the store is limiting the number of people in stores to “ensure that interactions between team members and customers can happen at the recommended distance.”
In a Facebook post Monday, Sprouts said it has obtained protective masks and gloves for each of its more than 35,000 employees.
Breaking News Alerts
Harris Teeter said in a news release last week that it is working to secure protective gloves and masks for employees as well. The supermarket chain is also providing mental health services to employees and making funds available to help financially support associates directly affected by COVID-19.
Trader Joe’s spokeswoman Kenya Friend-Daniel said Tuesday that its stores have enhanced cleaning and sanitation, especially in high-touch areas and continue to implement social distancing practices by limiting the number of people in stores. Employees are able to wear gloves if they choose, and the company said it had masks made for every worker and is in the process of distributing them. It’s also installing Plexiglass shields at registers in areas with high concentrations of COVID-19.
Shoppers are no longer able to use reusable bags and store hours have been reduced to help workers “in taking care of one another and our customers,” Friend-Daniel said.
“As this unprecedented situation continues to evolve, so will our approach to doing all that we can to safeguard the health and well being of our Crew Members and customers,” she said.
Shoppers can expect grocers to roll out additional measures in coming weeks.
“It’s a rapidly evolving situation," said Dennis Curtin, a Weis spokesman.
Baltimore Sun reporter Colin Campbell contributed to this article.