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Grocers will install plexiglass shields in Baltimore-area stores as they adopt social distancing protocols

Baltimore-area grocers are rushing to equip stores with protective shields, create space in lines, limit contact at service kiosks and devise other buffers to promote social distancing.

As businesses, schools and most gathering spots have shut down in Maryland as the coronavirus pandemic has worsened, grocery stores are one of the few “essential” places most people still need to go. After an initial spree of panic buying that crammed stores with shoppers, retailers are taking steps to keep people apart and help slow the spread of illness.

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“As we face more restrictions on social interaction, we are all adjusting to a new way of living,” said Ira Kress, interim president of Giant Food, in a letter Wednesday to customers. “All businesses, including Giant Food, are adapting operations to comply with new CDC guidelines to protect your health and safety.”

Giant and others, such as Harris Teeter and Green Valley Marketplace, have been installing plexiglass shields at spots such as cash registers.

Giant, the Baltimore region’s biggest grocer, said it also is putting shields in its supermarkets at high-traffic areas such as pharmacies and customer service desks. The grocer said signs and new procedures encourage social distancing within stores.

A Giant spokesman said plexiglass shields have been installed in many stores and could be in all stores by Friday.

Harris Teeter, which is placing shields at checkout and customer service and pharmacy counters, said it expected installation to be complete by Thursday.

“We invite you to practice social distancing while shopping your Harris Teeter,” the food retailer said on its website. “When possible, please maintain a distance of at least six feet to protect yourself, your fellow shoppers and our valued associates.”

B. Green & Co., which runs Green Valley Marketplace and Food Depot supermarkets in the Baltimore metro area, began putting up plexiglass at checkouts in its five stores last weekend. The stores shut down “high touch” areas such as salad bars and hot food bars, and now workers wrap or prepackage individual donuts, pastries and other in-store baked goods to limit handling.

Delis and bakeries in B. Green stores have changed the way they work, too. Employees package lunch meats and baked goods behind the counter and rather than handing them to customers, they leave them in pickup areas.

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“Our goal is not to have our customers or associates touch one another and be socially distant,” said Benjamin “Benjy” Green, the grocer’s CEO. At checkouts, “We’re asking that a second customer waiting to be checked out stand behind a specific line we’ve taped out, which is 6 feet away from the register, and wait until the first customer leaves after paying for their order.”

Similar procedures were in place at Wegmans stores, while Trader Joe’s maintains a line outside and allows only a few people in at a time.

Safeway had announced Tuesday that shoppers in its supermarkets also can expect to see some changes meant to keep customers 6 feet away from others.

Safeway’s parent company, Albertsons Cos., announced the new social distancing protocols. Albertsons will make the changes at its 2,200 U.S. stores, including Safeway stores in the Baltimore region.

“Social distancing can make a significant difference in our communities as we face this pandemic,” Vivek Sankaran, Albertsons president and CEO, said Tuesday.

The company is installing designated waiting points through floor markers positioned throughout stores. They will be placed at checkout stands and other places where people congregate, such as the deli, bakery and pharmacy.

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Customers also will be asked to wait until the customer in front of them has finished collecting their groceries before unloading groceries at checkout.

Other grocers have taken steps such as designating certain hours for seniors and people with compromised immune systems, limiting the number of shoppers in stores, placing limits on high-demand items and eliminating self-serve areas. Most grocers already had said they were stepping up sanitation and frequently wiping down surfaces that people touch.

Giant also told customers they could expect to see some employees wearing surgical masks and gloves, but “if you see an associate wearing a mask, it does not mean that the associate is ill,” Kress said.

Workers who want to wear masks or gloves during their shifts will be permitted to do so, though those measures still are not recommended by the CDC for people who are not sick, Kress said. Employees who are not feeling well or show signs of being sick are being told not to report to work.

Giant also said it is putting more resources into security and asset protection.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, shopping in our stores will be a different experience, but we hope that you will understand the steps we are taking to provide a safer environment and do your part to support our efforts,” Kress said in the letter.

Albertsons and others said store employees already are washing hands regularly and stepping up cleaning and sanitation.

“We believe that the next step toward helping slow and contain the COVID-19 virus is by reinforcing proper social distancing whenever possible,” Sankaran said.

Safeway stores have begun to display “two carts apart" reminders, and management noted that customers have begun to keep a distance from others on their own.

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