Critical link in the food chain: Grocery stores take measures to limit coronavirus spread

In these days of physical distancing, grocery stores exist as a place where strangers continue to gather, driven by the shared need to restock cupboards.

Many grocery stores, from major brands to local shops, have taken additional measures to protect the health of staff and customers, ranging from limiting the number of shoppers in the store to installing shields to protect cashiers.

But some Albertans wonder if more needs to be done to ensure grocery stores don't become a source of coronavirus spread.

Donna Crossley is concerned grocery store chains are independently tackling the situation and has asked the Alberta government if it would be taking measures to ensure high hygienic standards across the province.

"My concern is that there's inconsistencies across the board at various grocery stores about how they're dealing with this and what kind of cleaning protocols they do have in place," Crossley said.

Large crowds, carts and baskets not being consistently cleaned and workers at cash registers without either gloves or hand sanitizer are all risks that could endanger employee and customer health, she said.

"You may not necessarily be able to count on the individual stores, the management of those stores to follow these things. They could be confused about what they need to do." 

Alberta Health Services has not discussed implementing specific measures for grocery stores but has created a list of ways Albertans can protect themselves while grocery shopping.

The suggestions, published on the government's COVID-19's website, include shopping during off-peak hours, wiping down the handles of baskets or shopping carts before and after using them, and regularly sanitizing your hands.

What stores are doing

Last week, grocery stores big and small stepped up with measures to protect staff and customers.

Stores like Sobeys, Safeway and Real Canadian Superstore introduced Plexiglas shields at checkout counters, designated dedicated shopping hours for seniors and people vulnerable to coronavirus, and promised to amplify their cleaning standards. 

Sunterra Market stores have offered customers the option to use hand sanitizer or put on gloves.

Save-on-Foods has introduced other measures like not raising prices, encouraging social distancing and enforcing limits on high-demand items. 

The grocery chain's president Darrell Jones said the safety of their employees and customers is their top priority. "Along with retailers across the country, we have heightened our already very strict cleaning and safety protocols," Jones said in a video statement on Wednesday.

The four locations of the Italian Centre Shop have seen a big uptick in business in the past week, increasing the need to maintain the store's high hygiene standards, said Anthony De Santis, the store's director of operations.

"We want to be vigilant for sure, we want to be part of the community and make sure our stores stay open," De Santis said.

"If it gets to the point where we lose 50 per cent of our staff, for example, heaven forbid, we've also talked about having only 10 or 15 people in the store at one time. But for right now, we don't see that happening just yet."

Many farmers' markets are staying open too, as they fall under the same designation as grocery stores. 

The Old Strathcona Farmers' Market saw about 1,000 people on Saturday while taking measures such as cancelling social activities, increased cleaning, closing the mezzanine area and limiting the number of people in the market at one time, said market CEO Donna Lohstraeter.

"People need to have alternatives," she said. "People need to know there are still places that they can go to count on the products they depend upon." 

'The right to food'

The pandemic is showing how integral food workers are to public health, said Thomas Hesse, president of UFCW Local 401. The union represents more than 32,000 workers around Alberta, many of them in food processing, production and retail.

"There are two basic human needs and arguably the need translates into a human right, the right to health care and the right to food," said Hesse.

"Some employers are doing the right thing."

 The union is working to ensure social distancing is practiced in grocery stores where possible and urging employers to introduce more personal protection like rubber gloves and hand sanitizer.

"Our members bring food to the tables of Albertans. And they've always been an essential public service," he said. "It's a time of realization of how important these people really are."