The State of Colorado has been setting new records for outbreaks of COVID-19 on a weekly basis. The November 18 report from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment included 259 new outbreak entries — more were recorded during that seven-day period than during the two and a half months between late May and early August.
Of the more than 1,800 COVID-19 outbreaks recognized in Colorado to date, many of them have happened at retail and restaurant links in chains that operate across the country. And in our recent roundup of the national chains with the most outbreaks in Colorado, one stood above the rest: Kroger, owner of King Soopers and City Market grocers. In its November 4 report, the CDPHE had declared outbreaks at fifteen of the firm's stores.
The CDPHE considers an entity an outbreak after two or more COVID-19 cases among residents, staffers or other people connected to a specific location 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. The vast majority of businesses and facilities identified as outbreaks remain open while working with the department to monitor symptoms and prevent future infections.
The COVID-19 challenges for Kroger have only grown in the past two weeks. The CDPHE's November 18 data counts nineteen King Soopers or City Markets — far ahead of the chain with the second-most outbreaks (Home Depot, currently with twelve). But then, there are many more King Soopers stores in the state; it's by far the largest grocery chain in Colorado.
Six King Soopers and one City Market remain under active investigation, including two Soopers stores in Adams County and one apiece in Denver, Douglas, Jefferson and El Paso counties. The remaining twelve are considered resolved — although the inquiry into the second outbreak at a King Soopers bakery section in Denver wasn't wrapped up until November 13.
Jessica Trowbridge, corporate affairs manager for King Soopers and City Market, stresses that Kroger is doing everything it can to improve the situation.
"Since the pandemic started, our top priority, as it's always been, is the safety of our employees and customers," Trowbridge says. "And as we've learned more, we've adapted and changed our policies — and that's something we continue to do."
At present, there are 148 King Soopers or City Markets in Colorado, in addition to two in Wyoming and one apiece in Utah and New Mexico — and according to Trowbridge, "we've implemented more than thirty policies and process changes to make sure we're providing the safest environment to our customers and employees. Some of them you see, and some of them you don't."
Some examples provided by Trowbridge:
• Providing gloves and face coverings for every associate, every shift
• Plastic partitions installed at checkout stands
• Educational floor decals to ensure physical distancing
• Handwashing and frequently cleaning high-touch areas
• Limiting store capacity to 50 percent of normal — It’s important to note that while you will not see someone physically counting customers as they enter the store, we are monitoring capacity using our predictive technology called QueVision.
• 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
• Expanding contact-free payment solutions like Scan, Bag, Go and Kroger Pay
• Offering a no-contact delivery option, low-contact pickup service and ship-to-home orders
• Airing a healthy habits message via in-store radio to encourage customers to practice good hygiene and social distancing.
• Maintaining industry-leading best practices for safe food handling
• Responding immediately when we learn of a positive case in our employee base
• Including 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 and following all sanitation and cleaning procedures outlined by the state and local health department
• Additionally, out of an abundance of caution, with the safety of our associates and customers in mind, we quarantine any associate who display symptoms or who has been exposed to an individual who has tested positive for the virus — this exposure could have happened at our store or from an exposure offsite
Trowbridge underscores the use of QueVision, which tracks the number of customers in the store electronically and alerts personnel when the 50 percent capacity mark has been exceeded. At that point, managers are expected to assign someone to move to the front doors and admit customers on a one-in, one-out basis.
Whether that's actually happening is another question. Early in the pandemic, when King Soopers was aggressively monitoring store capacity, lines to enter metro-area stores were commonplace — but we haven't seen such queues for months. But we are witnessing numerous examples of slack safety protocols, including at the Jefferson County King Soopers where we have shopped for decades. We told Trowbridge about several we'd seen in the past week or two, including an employee in the floral section who conducted a lengthy phone call with his mask off and a trio of employees standing next to the main entrance who'd removed their facial coverings in order to smoke — and their choice of location meant that every patron coming into the store had to walk through clouds of their fumes.
What happens when the company receives such reports? "I can't speak directly to what our policies are," Trowbridge replies, "but our vice president of operations is very passionate about all things safety-related, and especially to all things related to COVID-19. He shares a weekly message about the importance of not just addressing safety, but making sure all of our associates are following those procedures. And we do have processes in place for repeat offenders."
When outbreaks occur, Trowbridge explains, "we respond immediately. As soon as we know an associate has tested positive, that associate is quarantined, and anybody who's come into close contact with that associate is also quarantined, even if they don't test positive."
Still, Trowbridge acknowledges that the challenges of keeping the novel coronavirus at bay are mounting. "Cases are going up across the state and the nation, and we're seeing a kind of correlation there as a reflection of the communities we serve," she says. "As we see cases go up around the state, we're seeing it in our stores...but our total COVID-19 incident rate continues to track meaningfully below the rate in surrounding communities where we operate."
Ultimately, Trowbridge says she believes that despite all the outbreaks, a customer may be safer in a King Soopers right now than elsewhere in the town where they live — an assertion that speaks volumes about the risks we're encountering every day.
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