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Grocers struggling to equip workers

Published: 4/13/2020 8:40:22 PM
Modified: 4/13/2020 8:40:18 PM

After CDC guidance last week changed to recommend that all people — sick and healthy alike — wear cloth face masks when out in public, one group remained notably unmasked.

Grocery store workers across the state were routinely spotted without masks, even when the customers in their stores started wearing them.

Grocery stores say though they’ve been trying to outfit all their employees with masks, the masks were simply in too high of demand, with priority being given to hospitals and health care workers.

All three of the Upper Valley’s major grocery chains — Shaw’s, Hannaford, and Price Chopper — say they’ve been trying to get their employees masks for weeks, and those orders are only now coming to fruition.

A spokesperson for Price Chopper/Market 32 said masks, thermometers and face shields were ordered “long before” the CDC evolved its thinking. Spokesperson Mona Golub said the face shields have recently arrived and been distributed across their stores.

“If we are able to obtain masks and non-touch thermometers, both of which are in high demand everywhere and sold as a priority to health care organizations, we will extend and deploy those, too,” Golub said in a statement.

In the meantime, she said Price Chopper will continue to encourage employees to wear face coverings.

At Hannaford stores, the story is the same. Workers currently have access at their stores to face shields and gloves, but masks have yet to arrive.

“All Hannaford associates are allowed to wear masks or gloves if it makes them more comfortable,” the Hannaford website states. “Masks have been ordered and will be provided as soon as possible. In the meantime, associates may wear masks produced by themselves or others.”

At Shaw’s, the masks are also soon to be brought into full use. The company’s policy reminds employees of the CDC’s recommendations, and states that Shaw’s has sourced face masks, and is “in the process of making them available to associates in our stores.”

The supermarkets have implemented other measures to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, such as installing checkout counter shields, curtailing hours to allow for restocking and sanitizing, implementing senior only hours, making one-way aisles and posting signs to encourage shoppers to maintain distance.

Employees of the Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society will be required to wear masks starting on Wednesday.

“This applies to employees at all Co-op locations, including those working in administrative offices. This policy follows recommendations from the CDC and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union,” the Co-op said on its website.

The New Hampshire Grocers Association on Monday recommended that shoppers only go into a grocery store when it is essential, wear cloth face coverings, shop alone, practice social distancing, stay home if they don’t feel well and only handle produce and other items if they intend to buy them.

In a press conference Monday, Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine said when he went shopping over the weekend, he found “lots of people” wearing face coverings, but also said he found “noteworthy exceptions” — including several workers.

He reminded Vermonters of the potential for carriers of the virus to be asymptomatic, and stressed the importance of wearing masks in public to stop that kind of spread.

“I strongly urge the use of facial coverings,” Levine said. “Those who are frequenting these essential stores where we must go because we need to survive with food and drink while we’re in this mitigation period, and those who manage, supervise or are those employees all should be wearing facial coverings.”

Levine said as the governor’s executive order lifts, there may be restrictions requiring masks or other kinds of precautions for workers returning to their jobs.

Erin Sigrist, president of the Vermont Retail and Grocers Association, said for both large-scale face mask manufacturers and smaller Vermont businesses that have switched over to face mask production, there is a long wait period to access masks, since most are being diverted to health care workers.

“We’ve shared our concerns that grocery store employees have just as much risk going to work every day is front line health care workers,” Sigrist said. “Stores are doing everything they’re able to — they’re just nonexistent right now.”

Sigrist said many stores have been reaching out to the association over the last month asking for its help in finding employees masks. She said so far, they’ve been unable to help, but hope that changes are production ramps up.

“If there’s a supply chain ramp up, I would hope that this personal protective equipment becomes more available,” she said. “But I don’t know how long that will take.”

Valley News staff writer John P. Gregg contributed to this report.

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