Social distancing at grocery stores? It remains a work in progress at a time harried shoppers and employees have been warned there’s little margin for error.
During recent visits to several stores in the Seattle area, The Seattle Times witnessed shoppers wandering the wrong direction through aisles, ignoring distancing stickers in checkout lines or brushing past other shoppers. Not all employees wore masks or gloves, even those serving unpackaged counter food.
Despite enhanced safety measures implemented by some of the region’s biggest grocery chains, frightened employees and shoppers say they’ve seen distressed customers crashing carts together to avoid one another, or sidestepping workers trying to restock shelves. They say some stores also seem more interested in making money than keeping people safely distanced and aren’t doing enough to limit and monitor crowds.
“We’re aware of these kinds of situations. They are concerning,” said Mike Faulk, a spokesman for Gov. Jay Inslee. He added that Inslee has reiterated that “people should not be going to the store unless they have to.’’
The state has designated grocery stores an essential service, keeping them open while food services like restaurants are limited to delivery and pickups.
“Continued or additional guidance are always possible depending on what we see and hear from around the state,’’ Faulk said.
On Monday, the head of the United Food and Commercial Workers International union, representing 900,000 grocery employees nationwide, said at least 30 of its members have died and 3,000 are sick from COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Union president Marc Perrone also urged shoppers to wear masks and gloves and be more mindful of social distancing.
Perrone last week sent a letter to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, demanding more protections for grocery employees — including limiting stores to 20%-30% capacity with mandated social distancing markers and personal protective equipment for workers.
“This is not just about saving the lives of those workers, but about protecting the customers they serve,’’ Perrone wrote.
Kroger-owned QFC and Fred Meyer say they are limiting their stores to be half full and using computer sensors known as QueVision technology to count shoppers inside.
But in a memo Thursday, QFC division operations manager John Newton told regional leaders “a few stores are getting false readings” from the sensors. Employees getting yellow and red warning lights on sensor software about their stores nearing 50% capacity, he added, should “take a quick loop around your store and estimate a total headcount’’ before attempting to limit customers inside.
QFC spokeswoman Tiffany Sanders said this week no store has exceeded 50% capacity since the enhanced safety measures went into effect. While not directly confirming false QueVision counts, she added: “While we are very proud of our technology, we are also maintaining counts in person to verify the numbers.’’
An email obtained by The Times, sent Saturday by QFC District 3 head Bob Goodman to store leaders in a region stretching from Stanwood to Redmond indicates business was booming.
“Team, another incredible day in sales,’’ Goodman wrote. “District UP 42 %!!!…we are now up 28.6 % for the week – TODAY WILL BE HUGE!!!!’’
In the same email, Goodman wrote: “We have had several stores receive ‘false’ alerts” from QueVision and “max occupancy will be challenged today.” Stores getting red alerts, he added, should do a “physical head count” and then phone him if capacity exceeds 50% before attempting to limit customer entry.
Several employees say they’re overwhelmed, must deal with sometimes rude and abusive customers, and have little time for proper cleaning or enforcing social distancing guidelines. They say backlogs in online food delivery add to store crowding, as do shoppers buying for online customers and blocking aisles filling several orders at once.
“Our store can have 450 people inside of it before it hits 50% capacity,’’ a Redmond QFC employee said. “How am I supposed to count all of them in a few minutes without getting them to freeze in one place? The answer is, it’s impossible and the store knows it. They don’t want to be keeping people out.’’
One worker at Fred Meyer in University Place said the store’s 50% capacity limit on her QueVision monitor was inexplicably changed Thursday from 550 people to 681. Even a 550-person limit is too much, she added, since that’s what major holiday sales typically attract.
“Customers have been telling us they’re shopping at our store because the store up the street is limiting people inside to 50 at a time, where they can just walk into our place,’’ she said, adding she fears going to work.
The employee said her department in recent weeks has well exceeded last year’s sales numbers for the same time period. Lines are huge at checkout counters, she added, and those waiting bump up against others still shopping.
“They could fix a lot of it by keeping more people outside,’’ she said. “But they don’t want to do that.’’
Fred Meyer spokesman Jeffrey Temple did not answer a question about whether the store boosted capacity, but said in an email the company’s goal is safe, clean shopping. “We will continue to make adjustments as needed to ensure that our customers and associates are safe,” he wrote.
Queen Anne resident Patric Earle, 67, said the Fred Meyer store he frequents in Ballard was chaotic last weekend with no one-way lanes and too many shoppers. “There was just a zig-zag, with everybody going every which way with their carts and bumping into each other like bumper cars to try to avoid each other,’’ he said.
During a visit to the store Monday by The Seattle Times, shoppers frequently passed within a few feet of each other in aisles lacking directional restrictions. Shoppers also were bottlenecked even in main passageways, often while pausing to view aisle displays.
The Redmond QFC employee said he’d like tougher government measures. He said employees filling online shopping orders are timed for speed by management and given directional devices — to find the quickest routes to items — that don’t recognize one-way aisles.
“Following the one-way signs means you may need to go all the way down one aisle and back up another just to get something close by,’’ he said. “They’re making employees choose.’’
Sara Osborne, a spokeswoman for Safeway and Albertson’s, said in-store capacity is limited to about 30%. There are also social distancing floor markers, one-way aisles, plexiglas partitions at checkout registers and entryway staffers wiping down carts and monitoring crowd volumes.
Still, on Monday, a shopper at the Safeway in upper Queen Anne headed the wrong way up a one-way aisle, brushing an oncoming customer. Nearby, a store employee in the middle of an aisle chatted with a colleague, forcing shoppers to inch by him.
Amazon-owned Whole Foods Market stores have added entry-monitoring systems. In a 15-minute lineup outside the Interbay location Sunday, shoppers waited beneath a tented area – spaced six feet apart – until an employee waved them inside. Aisles were less crowded than at some of the QueVision monitored stores, though social distancing remained difficult to achieve in some areas.
Ballard Market offers a “virtual line’’ where shoppers can register online and receive a text when it’s their turn to enter.
Trader Joe’s is also limiting customers inside its stores. At multiple locations Monday, customers were lined up outside for a block or more.
Bellevue shopper Kate Greenquist said her visit to a Trader Joe’s there, while not perfect, was less nerve-wracking than at an overcrowded, “tense and disorganized” QFC nearby. “It was a very pleasant experience being inside,’’ Greenquist said. “There was a lot more room for everybody.’’