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A fully-stocked grocery store with a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, canned goods perfectly lined up on the shelves like synchronized swimmers, and that special cut of meat to be there when I’m planning to cook for an audience is what I’ve grown to expect from my grocery store. Today is different. Workers are pressured to keep the shelves stocked, yet aisles remain empty. Cashiers are hesitant to exchange money (more germy than a toilet) with consumers. Grocery store workers are putting their lives at risk.

Until now, I didn’t think much about our reliance on the world’s frontline workers. COVID-19 has opened my eyes to how interdependent we really are, and how we sometimes take it all for granted. We expect stores to be open, food to always be available, and merchants to sell it to us.

The grocery store is one of the few places you can go if you live in the state of Michigan. On Monday, March 23rd, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, announced a “stay at home, stay safe, save lives” order. The order was put into effect at 12:01 a.m. on Tuesday, March 24th and extends for three weeks. She did this because people weren’t following the advice to self-isolate to “flatten the curve” and slow the spread of this deadly virus.

According to the order, Michigan residents can still do all the following:

  1. Engage in outdoor activity while maintaining proper social distancing
  2. Obtain health care
  3. Obtain necessary services and supplies including groceries
  4. Care for family members
  5. Perform jobs if characterized as critical infrastructure workers by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). Businesses will have the opportunity to designate their supply chain that is critical to performing CISA-designated tasks.
  6. Businesses not considered “essential“ by DHS will be able to designate employees required to maintain minimum basic operations including security, payroll, and providing for safe winding down of operations.

From this list, the only things I can do is go outside and grocery shop. My gym is now located outside my front doors—it’s larger, prettier, and more oxygen rich (at least). And, my evening plans now consist of grocery shopping.

For many, shopping is the only thing that gets you out of the house. Frankly, it’s not a fun place to be right now. In fact, people are afraid to get out of their car, and have forgotten how to smile or say “hello.”

This got me thinking about the safety of the workers, so I turned to Jack Dennerlein, professor of ergonomics and safety, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He pointed me toward a consolidated list of COVID-19 resources to help employees and employers stay safe. From it, I pulled the guidelines for cashiers in retail establishments published on The Western New York Council on Occupational Safety and Health website. During this outbreak, their goal is to improve working conditions for these workers and to reduce the risk of community spread.

Advice for Retail Businesses During COVID-19:

  • Install floor markings to require customers to stand behind, until its time to complete the transaction.
  • Schedule handwashing breaks and cashier sanitation breaks.
  • Sanitize all frequently touched surfaces on a regular schedule.
  • Explore ways to reduce handling of paper coupons, including substitutes that will not present a hardship to customers.
  • Waive pick-up fees to prevent in-store crowds.
  • Encourage the use of credit cards over cash.
  • Understand the difference between cleaning, disinfecting, and sanitizing.

Tips for Retail Workers During COVID-19:

  • Take extra handwashing breaks. Hand sanitizer is helpful, but it is not a substitute for handwashing. Remember, everything scanned at the cash register was handled by multiple people.
  • Secure loose hair to avoid adjusting stray hairs and touching your face.
  • Gloves don’t offer significant additional protection. Touching your face while wearing gloves poses the same risk of infection as if your skin was bare.
  • Do not reuse gloves and remove them properly to avoid infection.

I’ve already seen some of these improvements implemented. Caution tape was laid on the floor of Busch’s Fresh Food Market to keep customers 6 feet away from the cashier, and those stocking the shelves were also sanitizing the surfaces. However, I saw a produce worker straightening piles of green, red, and yellow peppers with no gloves on. And the meat cutter wasn’t wearing a hair net. I assume the store is short on supplies since each cart wipe dispenser was empty. Luckily, I had hand sanitizing wipes in my purse to disinfect the handle of my cart and protect my hands when opening refrigerator and freezer doors.

“The risk of disease transmission from surfaces is real,” said Joseph Allen, assistant professor of exposure and assessment science and director of the Healthy Building Program at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in the article “Don’t Panic about Shopping, Getting Delivery or Accepting Packages” published in the Washington Post.

Concern about becoming infected by touching a contaminated surface is on the rise. The COVID-19 virus can live on some surfaces for up to a day or more, but the levels drop quickly.  Allen explains the full causal chain that would have to happen for you to get sick from a contaminated Amazon package left on your front doorstep or from a gallon of milk bought at the grocery store.

He shares these tips on how to break the chain:

  • leave the Amazon package at your door for several hours
  • wipe down the exterior package with a disinfectant, or open it outdoors and dispose of the box in the recycling can
  • keep your hands away from your face when grocery shopping
  • wash your hands as soon as you get home
  • after putting your groceries away, wash your hands again
  • wash all fruits and vegetables

Some stores are going further on their safety measures. Meijer is installing sneeze guards at the checkout lanes to protect both the store staff and the customer, and it has discontinued accepting beverage containers for return at its Michigan stores.

What can you do to help these workers? Besides keeping your hands washed and, if not feeling well, scheduling curbside pick-up or having your groceries delivered to your home, be patient, ask them how they’re doing, and remember to say, “Thank you.”