COVID-19 Panic Buying and New Efforts to Keep Grocery Stores Safe

The Safeway at 12442 West Ken Caryl Avenue.
The Safeway at 12442 West Ken Caryl Avenue. Google Maps
We've been monitoring the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak at assorted grocery and food warehouse stores in the greater Denver metro area, and it continues to be significant. At many outlets, shortages of toilet paper and other related products that we documented at a giant Costco and other outlets over the past week or so now extend to basic staples of all kinds.

Are empty shelves that were initially chalked up to panic buying and hoarding now devoid of items because of supply-chain disruptions? In other words, are stores unable to get all the food they need?

No, says Kris Staaf, director of public affairs in the Colorado region for Safeway and its parent company, Albertsons. She stresses that "the supply chain is fine. People are just buying, and buying a lot. We're encouraging people not to panic shop or hoard. There's plenty of supply. We just need folks to be patient and let us restock."

This is only one of many challenges facing grocery purveyors amid the ongoing pandemic. Also top of mind are issues of safety for employees and social distancing for customers, which Safeway is addressing by, among other things, the installation of Plexiglass shields at strategic locations inside all of its approximately 2,200 stores nationwide, plus new design elements such as markers that will make it easy for patrons to gauge the six-foot distances they're advised to maintain between themselves and others in order to prevent possible infection.

The necessity of changes like these was illustrated by visits to two stores this past Sunday, March 22: a King Soopers at 11747 West Ken Caryl Avenue and a Safeway more or less across the street, at 12442 West Ken Caryl Avenue. Issues surrounding social distancing were as obvious as the sort of shopping behavior that's made finding popular stuff a struggle of late.

Arriving at the King Soopers just past 8 a.m., a customer found hardly any pasta, and other staples were in equally short supply. The store boasted a decent variety of fruits and vegetables, but the meat section had been decimated, and so was the area set aside for flour, sugar and the like. Eggs, too, were rare finds, and the coolers containing milk would soon be entirely depleted. Canned goods of all sorts were hard to find. And as expected, the toilet paper, paper towels, Kleenex, sanitizing wipes, cleaning supplies and so on were gone, gone, gone.

At the checkout area, just two employees were trying to process orders; one wore a mask and both sported gloves. The line was long as a result of people leaving space between each other, but the gaps were generally more like three feet than six.

When the customer's turn came, the checker looked at the meager number of purchases and offered the following advice: "You've got to get here at seven if you want to find anything."

Finally finished there, the customer returned to the great outdoors and decided to try Safeway. But it, too, looked as if it had already been routed of popular foodstuffs. Again, different kinds of fruits and vegetables were available in decent numbers, but that wasn't the case for flour, sugar, eggs, milk, canned goods, disinfectants and paper products.

click to enlarge
A common sight these days.
Denver7 via YouTube
Fortunately, a Safeway checker came to the rescue. She pulled a box of tissue and a single roll of paper towels out from under the counter and asked if the customer wanted them; she'd confiscated them from another shopper, who'd tried to buy a huge cache of both. The customer gratefully took her up on this offer, feeling like a lottery winner.

"I love hearing stories like that," Staaf says. While Safeway doesn't have a strict two-item limit for any product, as does King Soopers, she notes that employees are encouraged to step in if someone is trying to purchase absurd amounts of something or other. She calls the checker's act of kindness "totally organic."

Staaf isn't surprised to hear about the dearth of flour and sugar, either. "There seems to be a heightened demand for baking items," she confirms. "A lot of kids are home from school, and families are trying to figure things out. Our family, in addition to playing board games, is making a lot of Rice Krispies treats."

On March 24, two days after that shopping trip, Governor Jared Polis released a letter he'd sent to the parent companies of Safeway and King Soopers, calling for new safety protocols at grocery stores. His suggestions include:
• Providing appropriate gloves, masks, face screens, and other personal protective equipment to grocery store workers to the extent possible

• Consider expanding into grocery delivery services, prioritizing service to those at the highest risk

• Provide daily designated time periods for higher-risk individuals to shop

• Establish entrance/access controls to ensure crowds are in compliance with safe social distancing practices

• To the extent possible, assign those employees with higher health-risks to tasks with lowest exposure risks such as backroom work  
Complying with some of these recommendations won't be easy. Staaf, who was part of a conference call with Polis on March 25 (he mentioned it during while announcing his stay-at-home order for the state later in the day), confirms that masks for employees "are in such short supply. They're being funneled to health-care providers now. So we're following the CDC [Centers for Disease Control] guidelines: lots of hand washing and cleaning and sanitizing, over and over again."

Safeway stores "have always been clean," she continues. "We take cleaning and sanitization seriously and have protocols in place. But now that we're in this health crisis, we are cleaning and sanitizing the stores on an hourly basis, stopping and wiping down all the surfaces at the checkout counters: pin pads, pens, conveyor belts. And if employees aren't checking out customers or stocking or bagging, they're cleaning, wiping down carts, hand baskets, everything. We've really stepped up our cleaning process, and we've reduced our hours to between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. That allows us to do more of a deep clean at the end of the day, lets us restock, and gives our employees a little bit of downtime."

In addition, she notes, "We're installing temporary markers showing customers what six feet look like; it's basically a two-cart distance. We're going to put in more permanent markers soon, and we're also installing Plexiglass in the check-out lanes. As you're coming to hit the pin pad, there's going to be a protective barrier between you and the checker, and the same kind of thing is being installed in our pharmacies and in Starbucks — so, really, throughout the store."

According to Staaf, the shields should be up in all Safeway stores by week's end — and they're being placed into King Soopers outlets, too. Meanwhile, all Safeway stores are collecting funds to be distributed to local food banks, in addition to vigorously recruiting potential new team members.

"We're definitely hiring, and we're hiring all positions," Staaf says. "There are a lot of displaced workers right now with what we're seeing in other industries, so we're hiring permanent positions but also part-time positions where we might be able to fill the gap — be a bridge until some of these other businesses come back online."

The health and safety of customers and employees are top priorities, Staaf emphasizes, and she appreciates the patience that most patrons are exhibiting when they don't find everything they want. "People just need to step back and buy only what they need, and let products be available for all our customers."
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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.
Contact: Michael Roberts