The latest list of COVID-19 outbreak sites released on May 20 by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment featured a new entry that hit way too close to home. Included was the King Soopers at 11747 West Ken Caryl Avenue, where my family has shopped for nearly thirty years.
And we needed food.
My first instinct was to go to another area market instead, but a combination of loyalty and curiosity changed my mind. I wondered: Had new safety protocols been put in place at the store to prevent further infections? And would a place I knew very, very well feel different, now that the state had revealed that four employees had come down with the virus?
The answers to these questions wound up being "not that I could tell" and "absolutely."
Whispers that the Ken Caryl King Soopers had a COVID-19 outbreak began surfacing on social media in the days before the CDPHE declaration, with some correspondents ripping the reports as unsubstantiated rumors being floated by alarmists. But yesterday morning, May 21, when my wife and I visited, business was steady. Either word hadn't gotten out yet, or most folks in the habit of going there were confident they'd be safe as long as they took the proper precautions, like maintaining a gap of six feet or more from other customers.
Doing so could be tricky, though. A major reconstruction project had gotten under way a couple of months or so before the pandemic hit Colorado full force, and the store remains very much a work in progress. False ceilings have been removed in many places, leaving lights to dangle overhead, and access to some parts of the space is restricted. Notably, the deli was shut down and boarded over for renovation in the last week or two.
Even more problematic: Many of the aisles have been shifted to accommodate construction, and some are narrower than their usual width of five to six feet, including the one where paper products are stocked — a high-demand section during the pandemic, to be sure. Along that pathway and others, customers going opposite directions simply must pass each other within a foot or two, no matter how conscientious they might be.
Adding to these difficulties are the large number of employees filing blue roll-aways (they're about the length of two standard carts placed nose-to-nose) with items that remote shoppers ordered online for parking-lot pick-up. We encountered one aisle containing two of these contraptions that essentially blocked access, and the presence of even one in combination with other customers required the sort of traffic management that might befuddle the Colorado Department of Transportation, especially given that the only social distancing floor stickers on view were in the checkout area and near the produce section.
In the early days of COVID-19's spread, most workers at the store weren't wearing facial coverings. That changed after Governor Jared Polis made masks mandatory for supermarket workers interacting with the public, and on the 21st, all of the employees were wearing one with the exception of an associate shagging carts in the parking lot — plus one outside vendor who wore his below his chin.
Mask use among customers was close to 90 percent, and while men are more likely to reject them based on our observations over the past couple of months, the ratio at this King Soopers was closer to fifty-fifty. A handful of younger females had their nose and mouth on full display, as did an elderly woman smack in the vulnerable age range, who may have been making a bold political statement on which she was literally betting her life. The maskless dudes, meanwhile, were represented by some teenagers and a fifty-something guy wearing a T-shirt commemorating a concert by Dead & Company — a phrase that resonated in a different way under these circumstances.
Social distancing was better at the checkout counter, where our worker wore both a mask and gloves (most of his colleagues skipped the latter) and diligently sprayed down his work area and carts with disinfectant between customers — something that had been done prior to the outbreak designation, too. But the cluttered area leading to the exit meant more up-close-and-personal encounters with patrons on the way back outside.
The ongoing construction adds an extra level of difficulty for the folks at this King Soopers to up safety, but doing so is certainly possible, as we saw moments later when we stopped at a nearby Safeway, at 12442 West Ken Caryl Avenue, in search of sanitary wipes, which were out of stock. At that store, all of the aisles had been converted to one-way routes to prevent the shoulder-to-shoulder passes that were common at King Soopers, and other smaller measures, like a see-through covering on the credit-card keypad, increased confidence, too.
Of course, there's no telling how much difference these efforts made in the long run, given the ubiquitous presence of COVID-19 in Colorado. But as the economic reopening of the state gathers steam, the number of outbreaks will almost certainly grow — and so will the need for the rest of us to engage in risk management every time we step inside a store.
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