Strips of blue tape line Safeway’s floors, but the markers are not suggestive of new interior design. Instead, shoppers line up behind them while they wait to check out or place a deli or bakery order, one person behind each indicator. They lean on their carts or scroll through their phones or ponder an intended purchase. Each shopper is six feet apart.
Following recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Albertsons Companies — Safeway’s parent company — announced March 24 that it began implementing social distancing protocols. These include the blue distancing tape that will soon be replaced by more permanent floor decals, and posters asking customers to practice social distancing while shopping — across more than 2,200 stores.
“The goal with the protocol throughout the store is to follow guidance from the CDC to prevent customers from being within six feet of any other person for more than 10 minutes,” a March 24 release from Albertsons Companies states.
“Social distancing can make a significant difference in our communities as we face this pandemic,” said Vivek Sankaran, Albertsons Companies president and CEO. “Our stores are following the guidance from the CDC with regard to regular hand washing and enhanced cleaning and sanitation protocols. We believe that the next step toward helping slow and contain the COVID-19 virus is by reinforcing proper social distancing whenever possible.”
Designated waiting points are being installed throughout stores, particularly at check stands and deli, bakery and pharmacy service areas, the news release stated. Customers are also asked to wait until the person in front of them has finished collecting their groceries before unloading their own items at the check stand.
“We have seen our customers begin to implement social distancing on their own with our ‘two carts apart’ reminders as they shop our stores, so we think our floor markers will increase awareness,” Sankaran said. “We know that with our customers’ help, along with other safety measures we have implemented in our stores, we can create safer environments and help our communities contain the spread of this contagious disease.”
Other grocery chains have also implemented precautionary measures like increased sanitation and social distancing practices as part of new safety protocols encouraged by Gov. Jared Polis via a March 24 letter sent to the presidents of Albertsons Companies and The Kroger Co., which owns King Soopers and City Market.
Like Safeway, markets like Whole Foods, Walmart, King Soopers, City Market and Natural Grocers have increased cleaning and sanitation and are also taking additional measures to clean and sanitize carts, baskets and equipment. Food safety guidelines are also being closely measured, according to news releases from each grocer.
Walmart and King Soopers have also installed floor decals to encourage customers to abide by social distancing practices, and both markets have installed Plexiglass barriers (sneeze guards) at common areas such as checking stations.
The safety measures come amid increased crowds at grocery stores across the region, and as coveted items such as toilet paper, paper towels, rice, canned and frozen goods, and fresh meats struggle to stay on the shelves.
“Things have certainly been a lot more hectic since the outbreak,” said James Rendon, who helps stock and shelve items at the Safeway on South Murray Boulevard. “Initially our average grocery load tripled in size, and yet we still sold out on most of the items we received over the course of the day. … The crowds weren’t too bad at the start, but as more things started selling out and panic started to arise, we began to have crowds start to line up at our doors prior to opening.”
Still, Rendon said he feels safe coming to work.
“I feel about as safe as one can be without resorting to extreme measures like wearing hazmat suits or closing down the entire store. So far, any person who claims to have been exposed to the virus or shows symptoms has been quarantined, and all the rest of us are likely not to contract the virus any time soon. … Needless to say, we’re a lot safer from the virus than we were a couple of weeks ago.”
Furthermore, markets are bolstering financial support to frontline employees, including appreciation pay, expanded emergency leave guidelines and increased paid sick leave to those who contract the virus or are under mandatory quarantine.
Albertsons Companies announced March 20 it would offer a temporary $2-per-hour wage increase above regular hourly pay and overtime to its e-commerce pickers and drivers, store associates, distribution center associations and manufacturing plant associates. Natural Grocers is providing a $1-per-hour raise to all hourly associates and is paying a discretionary bonus to all crewmembers. King Soopers is paying its grocery, supply chain, manufacturing and customer service associates one-time appreciation bonuses: $300 for full-time employees and $150 for part-time employees, the market announced March 21. Likewise, Walmart is offering cash bonuses to hourly associates: $300 for full-time employees and $150 for part-time employees. Additionally, Walmart is accelerating its next scheduled quarterly bonus for associates by a month.
“It is very much appreciated that our employer is rewarding all the hard work we have been putting in,” Rendon said of Safeway’s wage increase. “Even temporarily, it is a nice gesture.”
Natural Grocers is providing associates with free daily immune-supporting supplement and has expanded its paid time off policies to ensure crew members can take time away from work if ill, providing up to two weeks of paid leave to all crew diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed under mandatory quarantine. Walmart and King Soopers also announced it implemented similar expansions to their policies.
“Grocery workers are on the front lines, ensuring Americans have access to the food and products they need during this unprecedented pandemic,” said King Soopers President Steve Burnham in a March 21 statement. “Our associates are working around the clock to keep our stores open for our customers. I am incredibly grateful for all they are doing. The true heroes in this story are our associates, and we want to provide them with additional resources and support to help them continue their remarkable effort.”