In the latest Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment update about COVID-19 outbreaks, the retail grocery giant Kroger isn't mentioned by name, but its presence is certainly felt. Kroger is the operator of King Soopers and City Market stores, ten of which have been declared outbreaks, including seven in the Denver metro area. Among the latter is the iconic King Soopers at 1155 East Ninth Avenue, where health officials list thirteen positive COVID-19 staff cases and two employee deaths.
The ten outbreaks represent far and away the most for a single retailer in Colorado. Chick-fil-A, which has registered outbreaks at four restaurants across the state, comes in a distant second.
The CDPHE considers a facility an outbreak after two or more COVID-19 cases among residents, staffers or the like are confirmed within a fourteen-day period, or two or more cases of respiratory illness with an onset of symptoms within a fourteen-day period are paired with at least one additional COVID-19 diagnosis.
To get a sense of how Kroger is reacting to the outbreaks, we reached out to Jessica Trowbridge, Kroger's spokesperson in the Colorado region, for the official company reaction. Her take, delivered via email, makes no acknowledgement of past problems or specific tweaks to correct them. Instead, she focuses on procedures that are intended to keep employees and patrons alike as safe as possible from infection by the novel coronavirus.
When asked why she thinks so many Kroger stores have been identified as outbreaks, Trowbridge states: "As we respond to this global pandemic, we are constantly cleaning and sanitizing our stores, strongly encourage social distancing and making every effort to protect the health and well-being of our associates and customers. We never want any of our associates to get sick, and we are working hard to prevent the spread of illness in our facilities. We are in communication with our associates that have tested positive to assist in their needs. Our thoughts are with them as they recover, and we wish them well."
Trowbridge doesn't suggest that the outbreak total is a result of King Soopers and City Market stores doing a better job of reporting about problems than its competitors; nor does she imply that state health officials are targeting its outlets. To the contrary, she stresses, "We have appreciated the partnership of both the state and local agencies who have worked with us to keep our stores safe for customers and associates. They have recognized our proactive approach and have repeatedly affirmed our processes."
Are there gaps in the King Soopers safety protocols? "The safety of our associates, our customers and our communities is our top priority, and we are doing everything we can to provide the safest working and shopping environment possible," Trowbridge replies. "In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, King Soopers and City Market have taken extensive measures to safeguard our associates, customers and supply chain, ensuring local communities always have access to fresh, affordable food."
This is the list of Kroger safety actions provided by Trowbridge:
• Providing gloves and face coverings for every associate, every shift
• Plexiglass partitions installed at checkout stands
• Educational floor decals to ensure physical distancing
• Handwashing and frequently cleaning high-touch areas every 30 minutes
• Limiting store capacity to 50 percent of normal (1 person for every 120 square feet of store space)
• Increased store sanitation processes when restocking
• Mandatory temperature and symptom checks for associates prior to starting their shifts
• Communication with all employees to review, confirm and reinforce safety and social distancing best practices
As for whether changes have been implemented at King Soopers and City Market stores since the outbreaks were first documented, Trowbridge maintains that "we respond immediately when we learn of a positive case in our employee base. This response includes quarantining the associate(s) per our Emergency Leave guidelines, using a third party CDC-approved vendor to deep clean the store and, of course, partnering with the state and local health department."
She adds: "We are continually evaluating our safety procedures and seeking feedback from federal, state and local agencies, including the CDC."
Is Trowbridge confident that the number of outbreaks at King Soopers and City Market stores has peaked and there will be few, if any, additional ones? Her response:
"Our top priority is the safety of our customers, associates and communities. As such, we remain committed to our safety and sanitation standards. This is a global pandemic and we cannot predict the future, but what I can tell you is that we will continue to follow these guidelines and adapt as the pandemic changes and we learn more. We are committed to making sure we do everything we can to protect our associates and customers and to be there for our communities when they need us most with access to fresh food and essentials."
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