Dealing face to face with the public, grocery store clerks are no strangers to stress. But as nonessential businesses close amid the coronavirus pandemic, these workers have been thrust onto the front lines of a public health crisis with both a heightened responsibility and an elevated risk of infection.
So what is being done to protect them? Area grocery stores — corporate and locally owned alike — have put new policies in place to help keep their employees and customers healthy.
At Price Chopper, which has stores in Keene’s Monadnock Marketplace and Brattleboro, spokeswoman Mona Golub said all stores have amped up their sanitation protocols. Everything from the lotto machines to the cashier keyboards is wiped down frequently, with extra steps for customer service employees, she said.
“On the front end, our customer-facing teammates have a sanitation regimen, where they are getting hand-washing breaks every half hour and hand-sanitizing fluid that they are using,” she said. “They are also wiping down the high-touch areas in between orders.”
Golub added that workers are not being given gloves or face masks, in accordance with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The federal agency’s website says face masks shouldn’t be used unless you are caring for someone who is sick or you are sick yourself, especially with the short supply. And while gloves can serve as a layer of protection, they can still transmit the virus, making them less effective than hand washing.
The stores are also professionally sanitized by a hired crew each night between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. — shopping hours cut recently from locations that are normally open ‘round the clock.
Golub added that the stores have posted signage advising people to remain six feet apart while shopping — the distance the CDC recommends when people are out in public to help curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Similar signs and sanitation practices are being employed at Hannaford, according to spokeswoman Ericka Dodge. Social-distancing practices have also been used between associates and vendors during product delivery, she noted.
In addition, Dodge said all Hannaford stores will have plexiglass barriers installed this week at the cash registers to help block the transmission of viruses at the front end of the store. The Maine-based supermarket chain has area locations in Keene, Rindge and Brattleboro.
“Our associates are following strict hygiene techniques that are most effective at combating viruses,” she said in an email Tuesday afternoon, “and we are asking associates who are feeling unwell to stay home.”
The websites for Market Basket — which has stores in Swanzey and Rindge — and Aldi‘s — which has locations in Keene and Brattleboro — describe heightened cleaning as well, but representatives from the companies did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
Jerry Gomarlo, owner of Gomarlo’s Shop ‘n’ Save Supermarket in Swanzey, said the six-foot protocol is “impossible.”
“When you are doing a transaction at the register, you’re within a couple feet of someone,” he said.
Otherwise, the store has enacted similar sanitation measures as the corporate stores. But, Gomarlo said, he is offering gloves to employees, though they aren’t required to wear them.
“It’s up to them if they want to, but a majority of them do,” he said. “But it’s hard to wear rubber gloves and use a cash register and handle the money.”
He’s also been feeding his workers breakfast and lunch and hired additional staff — about 10 to 12 people who worked next door at Jeanne’s Family Diner before its dining room closed — to ensure regular employees still get days off.
Monadnock Food Co-op in Keene is also providing gloves to staff, according to spokeswoman Jen Risley.
And the store is increasing its cleaning, hiring temporary employees to help reduce the workload and using signs to remind customers of social distancing while shopping.
“We certainly hope the community will help our staff feel safer by not shopping when they are ill, to respect the recommended six-foot distance and to be kind when we are not able to provide the products they are looking for,” Risley said in an email.