National Consumers League

Grocery stores and safety measures needed to protect workers and customers during COVID-19

By Nailah John, Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow

It was a rainy Thursday afternoon when I decided to take a trip to Mom’s Organic Market (MOM’s) in College Park, Maryland. MOM’s CEO, Scott Nash, was the subject of NCL’s We Can Do This! podcast a few months ago because he is infamous for consuming food whose “sell by” date is expired and living to tell the tale.

As expected, the parking lot was partially empty due to many neighboring businesses being forced to close due to coronavirus. I exited my car, pulled my mask over my mouth and nose, and walked in. I was greeted by a store employee also wearing a mask. He politely asked me if I needed a cart, disinfected it, and handed it to me. As I entered the grocery store, there were two signs: one that highlighted measures “Helping Each Other” during COVID-19, and the other noted that it is mandatory by law to wear a mask. It was good to read that if you forgot your mask, Mom’s Organic Market may be able to provide you with a disposable version. 

In the produce section, everyone was practicing social distancing and wearing masks. I continued my journey through the grocery store from aisle to aisle, picked up a few things that I needed for my pantry, and went to pay for my items. As my turn to check out was approaching, I decided to engage the staff member who was standing on the side guiding customers on social distancing. I introduced myself and asked if she was a manager, and she responded with enthusiasm that she was. I asked her a few questions regarding the safety measures MOM’s is taking during COVID-19 and whether any staff members at the College Park location had tested positive. She said no but that if any staff member does test positive for COVID-19 or presents a doctor’s note stating that they need to quarantine for 14 days because they have been exposed,  they will be given 14 days of paid sick leave. Also if they want to stay home for longer, they could choose to do so without being paid, but would not be terminated. She also told me that if any staff member comes to work feeling sick, they would be sent home. All staff members are outfitted with masks and gloves and protective glass at check out counters. It was reassuring to know the safety measures that Mom’s Organic is taking during COVID-19 to protect workers and customers.

The experience I had at Mom’s Organic Market was one that I could relate to at other grocery stores across Maryland. But to understand what other stores are doing, across the country, I embarked on creating a survey, which we distributed to NCL Board Members who reside in different States. The grocery stores patronized were Safeway, Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe’s, Harris Teeter, Costco, and Gelson’s Market. According to our board, 80 percent of these grocery stores require that all customers are mandated by law to wear a mask while shopping. 13 percent of the grocery stores provide a mask if you do not have one. and 88 percent did not provide a mask. Among the stores, there is no mandated policy for customers to wear gloves while shopping. 89 percent of the grocery stores did not provide gloves to customers while 11 percent did. Regarding social distancing, 90 percent practice social distancing while 10 percent did not. 75 percent of grocery stores sanitized the carts and then handed a cart to the customer while 25 percent did not.

When asked the question: Does your preferred grocery store limit the number of customers that enter at each given time? 80 percent said yes while 20 percent said no. When asked if grocery store cashiers wear masks, 90 percent said yes and 10 percent said no. 70 percent of the grocery stores in this survey have a protective glass at the cashiers while 30 percent did not. 89 percent of the grocery stores have hand sanitizing stations for customer use while 11 percent did not. It is safe to conclude that most grocery stores are taking the necessary measure to protect customers and staff during COVID-19.

As luck would have it, the daughter of one of my NCL colleagues works at the Safeway bakery. I also talked to her about grocery store COVID-19 related safety precautions. She told me that each staff member at Safeway was provided with a mask, made of either medical or reusable cloth and that some staff who requested face shields were also provided with it. All cash registers were outfitted with protective glass and employees must practice social distancing—six feet apart.  Each hour, the intercom prompts workers to stop working and wash their hands while cashier wash their hands more frequently because they interact more with customers.

Safeway staff go through a checklist daily prior to their shift, with these questions asked:

Do you have any symptoms pertaining to COVID-19 or is there anyone in your family who has tested positive for COVID-19? If any staff member answers yes to any of the questions they are immediately sent home for 2 weeks of paid sick leave. Again, social distancing markers appear on floors at Safeway, and wipes are provided to sanitize shopping carts. Many of us visit grocery stores once or twice a week. It’s great to know that most of the grocery stores we visited or learned about are taking the necessary safety measures to protect workers and customers during COVID-19 and providing generous sick leave protections to ensure workers can afford to stay home if they are experiencing symptoms of the COVID-19 virus.