By Zach Armstrong
Capital News Service
RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia grocery stores have increased efforts to keep stores clean and safe while they remain open to provide essential services during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gov. Ralph Northam issued a stay-at-home order as coronavirus cases quickly multiplied in the commonwealth. Grocery stores, considered essential businesses without restrictions, are implementing new service measures as sales spike during the coronavirus outbreak.
Kroger is cleaning commonly used areas multiple times an hour including cashier stations, self-checkouts, credit card terminals, conveyor belts and food service counters. Beginning April 7, Kroger will limit the number of customers to 50% of the building code's calculated capacity to allow for proper physical distancing in stores and also plans to add plexiglass.
Ellwood Thompson’s, a natural food market in Richmond, has upped cleaning practices, closed the salad, hot bar and dining room, and places wax paper throughout the store where there are shared surfaces.The store also provides customers with hand sanitizer stations through the store and no outside food containers are allowed.
“We are sanitizing all bathrooms, door handles and every touchpoint each hour,” wrote Colin Beirne, marketing director at Ellwood Thompon’s in an email response. Food Lion announced that by the end of the week plexiglass shields at customer service, register and pharmacy counters will be installed at all locations.
Many grocery stores are attempting to prioritize those most vulnerable to the coronavirus. Food Lion, Ellwood Thompson’s, Publix and all Mid-Atlantic Kroger locations have allowed customers above the age of 60 or who are immunocompromised to exclusively shop when stores are cleanest and least crowded.
“Protecting our most vulnerable neighbors is important to us, so special hours are being reserved for this group,” said Food Lion President Meg Ham in a statement to customers. “These special shopping hours will remain in effect until further notice.”
Not all food markets are reserving certain hours for vulnerable demographics. Wegmans, a grocery store with several locations in Virginia, explained on its website that the elderly are not the only population susceptible to the virus. The company said it doesn’t believe it's a good idea to put highly susceptible people together in one location.
“There are many wonderful people and community services in every market who can serve as a resource for those who fall in these susceptible populations,” Wegmans stated. “Any customer requiring additional assistance accessing our products or services should visit the service desk.”
Wegmans takes precautions such as markers on the floor to instruct shoppers where to stand for proper social distancing and the checkout belts are sanitized between each customer.
Stores have modified the hours of operation to allow additional time for cleaning and restocking. Ellwood Thompson’s, Publix, and Harris Teeter now close at 8 p.m., Kroger and Wegmans close at 10 p.m. and Food Lion locations close based on regional curfews that may be implemented.
Retail food markets are expected to gain substantial revenue from lifestyle changes related to COVID-19. Karen Short, managing director at British multinational investment bank Barclays PLC, told Winsight Grocery Business that between $61 billion and $118 billion is projected to shift from restaurants to grocery stores during the second quarter of 2020.
Grocery retailers are adding tens of thousands of new employees nationwide. Kroger announced in late March that they hired 23,500 new workers with plans to hire an additional 20,000 in coming weeks.
Grocery store employees have been deemed as essential workers during the pandemic. As demand for their services rises and food retail revenue increases, many grocery store workers have been offered additional benefits.
Wegmans boosted employee hourly pay rate $2 through March and April. Harris Teeter, which has several locations across Virginia, is offering employees a one-time bonus of $300 for every full-time associate along with a $2 per hour wage increase for its employees through April 21. Kroger workers will be receiving an extra $2 per hour for hours worked March 29 through April 18 in addition to $25 for groceries.
Efforts have also been taken to protect workers from contracting COVID-19. Harris Teeter has provided protective shields at counters and requires customers with reusable bags to pack their own items. At Food Lion, workers may choose to wear protective face masks. Kroger is expecting to give their employees gloves and face masks for protection by the end of the week.
Restaurants are permitted to remain open for takeout, delivery or drive-thru services. Other establishments have come up with creative ways to continue sales. Breweries are doing home delivery and some farmer's markets are accepting pre-orders for weekend pickup.
Non-essential businesses can remain open as long as they adhere to social distancing guidelines of a 10 patron limit. The stay-at-home order is effective until June 10. Failing to comply is a Class 1 misdemeanor.