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As grocery stores serve essential need, capacity limits and safety measures added

By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Grocery retailers are implementing new safety measures and limiting the number of people inside their stores in an effort to keep employees and customers safe from the novel coronavirus.

Part of Gov. Kay Ivey’s stay-at-home order issued on Friday included limiting the maximum occupancy of essential retailers to no more than 50% their normal capacity. Stores are also asked to maintain proper social distancing guidelines for customers and comply with sanitation guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Some municipalities are deciding their own maximum capacity for stores and are limiting occupancy even further than Ivey’s order.

The City of Mobile amended its guidelines on Monday, saying that retail and grocery stores can’t allow any more than 40% their normal capacity and large “super centers” like Target, Costco, Sam’s Club and Wal-Mart aren’t allowed more than 20% of normal capacity.

The City of Montgomery last week attempted to implement stricter rules before the state-wide order was put in place, limiting the number of customers in a store to 10 or less. Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall issued a statement on Friday saying the city’s interpretation of the March 27 health order was incorrect and the 10-person rule was unenforceable.

Now grocery stores across the state are implementing social distancing guidelines to help protect both shoppers and workers.

Ellie Taylor, president of the Alabama Grocers Association, said the group’s members support the measures.

“The 50% maximum capacity will help us keep the numbers under control and maintain the safety of our other customers and our employees,” Taylor told Alabama Daily News.

The Alabama Department of Public Health has suggested ways Alabamians can protect themselves when going grocery shopping by minimizing trips to the store whenever possible, carrying hand sanitizer with them and using sanitizer wipes on the carts and shopping online for either delivery or pick up of groceries when they can.

Taylor said the grocers association is suggesting that one person from each household be the designated shopper for the family and to refrain from bringing entire households to grocery stores.

Consumers who want to use their own reusable bags are being asked to wash them after every use and to bag their own groceries when checking out, Taylor said.

Plexiglass barriers are also being placed in check-out aisles at several major retailers.

Most retailers on their websites said they would supply masks and gloves for their employees if asked but are not requiring them to wear them during work hours.

Taylor said some Alabama grocery store employees are using gloves and masks, but since those resources are going to medical care workers first, they are sometimes scarce for grocery stores
“I think if the grocery stores are able to get them and able to maintain them, they absolutely will have their employees wear them. I think right now it’s a question of are they available?”

Taylor said employees and customers are feeling fearful right now about COVID-19, but Alabama grocery stores are going to maintain social distancing and sanitation guidelines.

“I think what we can do is let (shoppers) know that we’re doing all the proper methods that the CDC has put into place, and the better off we are in following those orders, the less panic that will instill not only in our employees but also in our customers,” Taylor said.

Some companies are deciding on their own max capacity numbers nationwide. Walmart and Sam’s Club are now only allowing in five customers for each 1,000 square feet at any given time, which is roughly 20% of a store’s capacity.

Last week, Costco said it was only allowing two people per membership in stores at once, but hadn’t set a capacity allowance.

Target has not set a capacity limit either but said on its website they will “actively monitor and, when needed, meter guest traffic in its nearly 1,900 stores nationwide to promote social distancing.”

Rick Brown, the president of the Alabama Retail Association, told ADN that some Alabama stores are limiting their capacity further than 50% because of each stores specific needs.

“Such decisions are being made based on customers’ shopping habits, the number of employees on a given shift, the physical space inside their stores and how best to limit contact between customers and employees,” Brown said in an emailed statement.

If further restrictions on store capacity continue though, Brown worries that it would worsen the anxiety the public is already feeling because of COVID-19.

“Further mandatory restrictions on occupancy could create unnecessary lines outside of stores and cause panic shopping by Alabama consumers, which would directly conflict with Alabama’s stay-at-home order,” Brown said.

Some companies have also altered their sick-leave protocol, like Walmart, which is allowing up to two weeks of sick-paid leave if employees are confirmed to have COVID-19 and possibly more if they are not able to return after two weeks.

Grocery delivery services like the Birmingham-based company Shipt are also in high demand right now. Shipt’s website says they are defaulting their option on all deliveries to “leave my order at my door” now to follow proper social distancing guidelines.

Shoppers for Shipt announced Monday there would be a walk-off on Tuesday if safety improvements and demands for better pay were not met, reported.

Similar demands have been made from shoppers at Instacart and store workers at Amazon-owned Whole Foods last week.

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