Grocery store chains across southern Minnesota have been announcing a number of new hygienic measures in light of COVID-19, with one of the most recent additions being plexiglass protective barriers set up at checkouts and service counters.
Deemed essential services, the stores will remain open during a planned stay-at-home order issued by Gov. Tim Walz Wednesday afternoon. The policy is set to go into effect for two weeks starting late Friday night.
“You need to get out to the grocery stores, you need to get gasoline, those things will still be permitted. We’re not keeping you in your house, we’re asking you — we’re asking you because it’s going to take cooperation and collaboration — to stay home,” said the governor.
Walz explained that officials’ goal is to delay the point at which the virus peaks statewide, allowing more time to gather the necessary intensive care capabilities for the roughly 5% of all patients who will likely require it to drastically improve their chances of survival.
While grocery stores and their workers are expected to remain open during the shut down, a few of the smaller local chains are struggling with staffing and — across the board — companies are working to install more protective measures.
Protective barriers at checkouts
Iowa-based supermarket chain Hy-Vee — which has locations in Faribault, Mankato, Owatonna and one on the way in St. Peter — announced late last week that it will be installing these protective panels at cashier stations throughout its eight-state region.
According to a March 19 press release, “These panels are in place in our Des Moines-area stores, and will be installed in all other Hy-Vee locations over the next few days.”
Christina Gayman, director of public relations, added that for the moment these will only be at checkouts, although there has been discussion of possibly expanding usage.
Michigan-based grocer SpartanNash, which operates Family Fresh Market in St. Peter and Family Fare in Northfield, has also announced plans to add these barriers at all of its cashier stations, delis, customer service counters, pharmacies and fuel center checkouts.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the shields — which the company says will be sanitized every half hour — had not yet been installed in either Northfield or St. Peter. In a March 24 press release, the company noted that it had begun the process of adding barriers in its 155 retail locations and said installation would be complete across the region by April 3.
SpartanNash also released in a statement that all stores have placed signs on the floor to remind patrons of social distancing and attempt to ensure a six-foot distance in customer-employee interactions. These are present, like the shields, at all customer service desks, pharmacy counters, register lanes and elsewhere throughout the stores.
Sanitizing, looking to add staff
In addition to installing guards, Gayman said that Hy-Vee is also having employees regularly wipe down checkout belts, pin pads, counters and other frequently-touched surfaces. She noted that there is also a worker stationed at the front of every store wiping down carts before customers use them.
“We are pressure washing the carts every night after we close, and also contracting with third-party sanitation services — most stores are doing it every week, if not more than that — to clean those carts separately,” said Gayman, “and that includes the red baskets customers use for smaller orders.”
At Radermacher’s Fresh Market in Le Sueur, as well as at its sister locations in Jordan and Le Center, store manager Amy Ernsting noted that there is a station set up at the front of the store with spray and paper towels for customers to clean their own carts.
Ernsting noted that each location is trusting customers to wipe down their own carts, being a smaller operation and also having been short-staffed lately due to COVID-19. She explained that many employees were elderly or had pre-existing medical conditions themselves and were nervous about contracting the virus in such a crowded environment.
“Our main focus is getting things stocked on our shelves and making sure registers and credit card machines are wiped down,” she explained. She added that they’ve posted notices that they’re hiring and have had a few applications coming in, but that interest has been low.
Hy-Vee also announced over the weekend that its looking for temporary, part-time hourly employees to help with restocking and sanitizing, due to a recent surge in demand.
Changing return policies, pick-up services
Other measures Ernsting said all locations have taken is to no longer accept either returns or reusable bags at check-out, given the potential for cross-contamination. After the first known case of COVID-19 in Le Sueur County was confirmed over the weekend, there have been six cases announced by the Minnesota Department of Health as of Wednesday afternoon.
Like Radermacher’s, Hy-Vee has also temporarily changed its return policy. As of Tuesday, stores are no longer offering returns or issuing rain checks on any merchandise. Gayman explained that if a fresh product — such as deli items, meat, produce or seafood — is not up to the company’s standards, customers can bring it in for an exchange. The returned item will not be put back out on the floor, and non-perishable items will not be accepted.
Starting last week, many area grocers had begun setting aside the first hour of every day for older and immunocompromised customers, and in some cases expectant mothers and health care professionals.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it’s currently unknown whether or not pregnant women have a greater chance of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19 although changes associated with childbearing may increase risk of some infections.
Most Hy-Vee pharmacies — including the location in St. Peter — have also extended their hours from 7 to 8 a.m. in the morning, to serve the same demographics.
“We’re trusting that our customers will be honest. If you’re older than 60 or an expectant mother, obviously that looks different,” said Gayman. “We trust our customers to show up at the hours that are best for them.”
Both Hy-Vee and SpartanNash, as well as a number of other stores, also have curbside pick-up and delivery options. Due to demand, Hy-Vee’s Aisles Online service is now pick-up only in Faribault, but delivery is still available in Owatonna.