COVID-19 and Colorado Grocery Workers: 64 Cases, Seven Deaths

A screen capture from a commercial saluting workers at Kroger stores such as King Soopers.
A screen capture from a commercial saluting workers at Kroger stores such as King Soopers. Photo by Michael Roberts
A letter from the head of Colorado's largest food workers' union to Governor Jared Polis reveals the toll that COVID-19 has taken on those who work in the state's grocery stores. According to United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 president Kim Cordova, at least 64 UFCW members working in grocery stores in this state have tested positive for the novel coronavirus; seven have died.

Of that total, 54 cases and one death are associated with Kroger, owner of King Soopers, whose iconic supermarket at 1155 East Ninth Avenue in Denver was recently declared an outbreak location as a result of eight positive cases connected to the store.

Cordova's letter focuses on the public-health order requiring all workers at Colorado grocery stores who interact directly with customers to wear masks or facial coverings while on the job. Polis issued the edict on April 17, the same day Westword reported that King Soopers wasn't mandating mask usage among its employees, and that a sizable percentage of workers at local stores failed to wear them.

Since then, Polis has frequently mentioned the rule regarding mandatory marks for grocery-store workers at what have become his thrice-weekly press conferences about the state's COVID-19 fight, often citing it as he urges patrons to also wear face coverings in order to protect everyone in these spaces. He's expected to extend the order, which expires on May 17 — but Cordova wants more. In her letter, she asks that Polis broaden its scope to require that "customers, employees and other entrants, including suppliers or vendors, in all retail grocery facilities wear masks throughout the state."

Denver already mandates mask use in stores, and several other jurisdictions have even tougher rules, with potential penalties of fines up to $5,000 and a year or more in jail. But in Colorado as a whole, customer use of facial coverings in markets and shops is merely a recommendation.

Here's Cordova's letter:
Dear Governor Polis:

First, let me express the appreciation of the roughly 23,000 workers that we represent in the State of Colorado for your efforts in combating the COVID-19 virus and your efforts to safeguard our members’ health at a variety of facilities, varying from meat processing to retail grocers to healthcare facilities, among others.

While no efforts can insulate any segment of our population completely from the impacts of this virus, we have appreciated the collaborative effort, which we have been involved in. That being said, however, there still remains one issue, which is of great concern to our some 17,000 grocery workers. We recognize and thoroughly appreciate your Executive Order from April 17 directing the CDPHE to issue a Public Health Order requiring workers in grocery stores, among other facilities, to wear cloth face coverings while working. As the Public Health Order expires at 11:59 p.m. on May 17, we respectfully request you mandate that it be extended, or include workers in a broader order encompassing all entrants into retail grocery establishments.

As you know, many localities and counties have issued face mask orders, of varying specificity and effect, with regard to customers entering retail groceries. Thus, for instance, Denver and Boulder Counties, Larimer County, Routt County, Summit County and a variety of municipalities such as Aspen, Boulder, Erie, Estes Park, Glenwood Springs, Lone Tree, Loveland, Superior and Wheat Ridge have all issued orders attempting to deal with this issue.

Unfortunately, enforcement is not a hallmark of these orders — and we continue to receive reports of shoppers entering stores without the required face masks even in municipalities and counties with such orders. This, of course, is a substantial health risk, not just to their fellow customers, but to our members and all retail grocery employees. We are aware of at least 64 of our grocery members that have tested positive for the COVID-19 virus, one of whom has, sadly, passed away. There are several others in either critical care or on respirators.

Under the circumstances, it seems imperative there is uniformity of enforcement, not just in localities or counties where a face mask order may be in theoretical effect, but throughout the State of Colorado. Failing a uniform policy with regard to masks, it seems apparent that lessening the spread of the virus will be negatively affected. Certainly, we are not unmindful of the fact that some individuals simply do not wish to wear masks — however, that right needs to be balanced with the right of our members and the general public to be free, as best as possible, from possible infection.

The issuance of an Executive Order mandating that customers, employees, and other entrants, including suppliers or vendors, in all retail grocery facilities wear masks has the beneficial impact of ensuring that these municipal or county orders are not administered on an ad hoc basis — this eliminates questions and concerns regarding the actual scope and intent of the orders, insulates retail grocers from adverse feedback from some potentially-disgruntled customers, establishes a uniform regularity concerning enforcement, and far most importantly, will help “slow the spread” which is in everyone’s best interest. The de minimis inconvenience of wearing a mask for a shopping trip pales aside the positive impact on public and employee health in retail groceries.

You have not hesitated to lead where necessary in combating the virus — while we applaud efforts to “open” the State in measured terms, we truly need your leadership here with regard to a requirement that all retail grocery customers and other visitors wear masks upon entering the stores. Nothing could be more in the interest of the common good than a simple straightforward Executive Order to that effect.

I greatly appreciate your consideration of this request and am certainly willing to talk further with you or your executive staff as to how we might best accomplish our common goals of re-opening our state’s businesses while safeguarding our members and the citizens of Colorado.


Kim C. Cordova
UFCW Local 7 Union President
UFCW International Vice President
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
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