Grocery stores are taking preventative measures, both voluntary and required, during the coronavirus pandemic. Here a Walmart employee wears a mask. Photo courtesy of Walmart

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Grocery stores across North Carolina are hiring more employees, sanitizing more frequently, modifying store hours and taking additional steps to keep up with increased demand, while reducing the risk of transmitting the new coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.

Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive order imposing new restrictions on stores, which went into effect Monday, has meant even more adjustments from stores.

Many stores are now offering “senior shopping” hours. For example, Matthews-based Harris Teeter, one of the state’s largest supermarket chains, lets only customers age 60 or older, or others at risk, to shop 6-8 a.m. each Monday and Thursday. The pharmacies open at 7 a.m. on those days.

For those unable to make it in the morning, Harris Teeter introduced more options.

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“To further enhance our commitment to protecting our senior shoppers, Harris Teeter will designate ExpressLane Online Shopping pickup times from 9 a.m.-2 p.m. for seniors only every Thursday until further notice and will waive the $4.95 fee and offer $5 delivery for seniors during these times,” Harris Teeter wrote. Those shoppers will be able to use their 5% senior discount each Thursday.

The chain offered those times to nonseniors who also need extra protection due to risk.

“We invite other vulnerable populations to shop during this designated time, as well,” the store added.

Salisbury-based Food Lion, also a major chain statewide, created protected shopping times as well. Anyone over age 60 or who qualifies as high-risk through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may shop 7-8 a.m. Mondays and Wednesdays, according to its website.

Black Mountain-based Ingles, the largest supermarket chain in Western North Carolina, offers senior hours 7-8 a.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, again allowing other at-risk shoppers to visit.

Arkansas-based retailer Walmart, which offers groceries in addition to other items, has senior shopping times one hour before the store opens on Tuesdays, from 6-7 a.m.

Protective sneeze guards have also been added to the counters in some chains. Harris Teeter, Food Lion, Walmart and Ingles all announced that they will be added to protect both customers and employees.

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“As part of caring for our communities during this time, our top priority is the health and well-being of our associates and customers,” Food Lion posted. “We continue to follow guidance from local, state and national health authorities, including the CDC. We recently shipped face shields to associates in our stores across our 10-state footprint. In addition, we have advised our associates that they can wear their own masks or cloth face coverings and we have ordered nonmedical-grade face masks for their use.”

Grocery shopping changes

Harris Teeter and Ingles do not currently accept product returns due to the virus. Some stores have imposed limits on certain products. Shortages also make some items difficult to find.

“The availability of these items is impacted nationally,” Food Lion posted. “We are in daily contact with our suppliers to address availability and we are committed to getting supply onto our store shelves as quickly as we can.”

Harris Teeter and Ingles still allow guests to bring reusable shopping bags, but employees will ask shoppers to bag their own groceries, according to the chains’ websites. Food Lion also posted that shoppers may still use reusable bags. Both Harris Teeter and Food Lion recommended that customers clean their bags.

Food Lion and Walmart noted that curfews in some areas may affect store hours. Food Lion said to check with local stores for information on changes, while Walmart stores are now open 7 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Employees have the extra time to clean, add more products and be home before curfew in applicable areas.

Many chains also offer pickup and delivery options.

Employees at grocery stores

All four major chains contacted for this article are hiring more employees to keep up with the increased demand.

Harris Teeter announced additional compensation. “We’re providing hourly associates in retail, distribution center, manufacturing and corporate offices a one-time bonus of $300 for every full-time associate and $150 for every part-time associate,” Harris Teeter posted.

“The company has also shared with associates its newly created Emergency Leave Guidelines. … Harris Teeter is proud to announce a temporary increase of $2/hour for our retail heroes, our hourly associates. The increased hourly rate will begin April 1 and remain effective through April 21, 2020.”

Ingles and Walmart said qualifying employees would receive the same $300 and $150 bonuses. Walmart will also pay its quarterly bonus for qualifying employees early.

Food Lion also announced changes for employees. “As a result of the coronavirus outbreak, we have implemented pandemic exception guidelines, including modified attendance policies, compensation and other key benefits,” Food Lion posted. “We are monitoring this fluid situation, including details from government and health agencies, and will update guidance as needed.”

Ingles announced that it will provide two weeks of paid leave for employees who test positive for COVID-19.

“In addition, we have modified our sick pay policy and enhanced our medical plan to provide covered members with additional benefits,” Ingles posted.

“Our hardworking associates are truly heroes,” Robert P. Ingle II, chairman of the board for Ingles Markets Inc., said in the release. “We are proud of their dedication and support during this unprecedented time.”

Executive order

Some stores were busy making additional modifications this week as a result of the executive order that into effect at 5 p.m. Monday.

Walmart had already written that it would limit customers to about 20% of the store’s capacity.

On April 13, Harris Teeter’s website still said that as of 5 p.m. April 8, shoppers would be limited to 50% of the capacity.

As a result of the order, stores will also have to have signage marking 6-foot distances at cash registers and “other high-traffic areas.” They will have to disinfect regularly. Many chains have already done both.

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With the governor’s latest requirements for social distancing, many chains are using flood decals to mark off proper spacing.

“Additionally, we’re using a single, clearly designated entrance and another clearly designated exit at each store to help maintain social distancing and lessen the instances of people closely passing each other,” Walmart posted. “We’re also limiting the number of people in a store at once to allow no more than five customers for each 1,000 square feet at a given time, roughly 20% of a store’s capacity.”

The order was issued because Cooper “has determined that local control of the emergency is insufficient to assure adequate protection for lives and property of North Carolinians,” according to the text, adding that “not all local authorities” have done what is needed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The order also states that “local control of the emergency is insufficient to assure adequate protection of lives and property of North Carolinians because the scale of the emergency is so great that it exceeds the capability of local authorities to cope with it.”

Although not mandated, the executive order contains recommendations such as installing hand sanitizer dispensers, creating shopping time for seniors and high-risk groups and more.

The order applies to banks, grocery stores and other retail areas.

Imari Scarbrough

Imari Scarbrough is a contributing writer to Carolina Public Press. Email her at imari.scarbrough@gmail.com

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