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How Sonoma County grocery stores are working to keep employees, shoppers safe during coronavirus pandemic

Zack Fresco’s kids were staying with their grandparents Tuesday afternoon, so he took the opportunity to make a trip to buy groceries at Oliver’s Market in west Santa Rosa. Donning an industrial respirator mask, he selected a green shopping cart, which had just been wiped down with cleaning solution by an employee manning the front entrance, and lined up at a marked spot 6 feet behind another shopper waiting to enter the store.

Once inside, he was offered hand sanitizer and gently reminded to keep social distance over the store intercom, before paying for his items behind a plexiglass shield that had recently been installed at the checkout, the latest in a series of measures grocers are taking to protect public-facing employees from customers who may be carrying the coronavirus.

Employees and shoppers in Sonoma County, and increasingly the entire country, are grappling with a new reality as grocery stores and supermarket chains take steps to ensure the safety of both their customers and workers amid a viral pandemic.

But did the extra precautions make Fresco feel safer?

“It’s really hard for me to evaluate that because I don’t know what’s safe and what’s not,” he said, acknowledging that store employees appeared to be doing everything they could. “People are wearing masks and gloves, but then I go to pick apples and how many people have touched them?”

Under the county’s shelter-in-place order, which was extended Tuesday night through May 3, grocery stores are one of the few businesses allowed to remain open to the public. As a result, they are potentially a main vector for spreading the coronavirus.

In response, local stores including Oliver’s Market, Pacific Market, Safeway and Whole Foods have taken a variety of new measures such as giving gloves and masks to employees, limiting the number of customers allowed in stores at a time and asking shoppers to bag their own groceries if they bring bags.

Across the country, some grocery store employees feel that hasn’t been enough. On Tuesday, some Whole Foods workers walked off the job, demanding the Amazon-owned chain take additional steps to protect staff and offer increased hazard and sick pay to all employees.

Oliver’s Market provides its 1,000 or so staff members with paid sick leave and has temporarily upped pay for all store employees by $2 an hour during the emergency. If employees start to feel ill, they are advised to stay home.

“The safety of our staff comes first, and we’re trying the best we can,” said Roger Guttridge Jr., a store director at the Santa Rosa location.

Two Oliver’s employees said the precautions have gone a long way in making them feel more protected on the job. But Ari Frankel, a checker and bagger at the store, wasn’t as sure.

“I don’t think comfortable or safe is the right word because we still have (customers) here ignoring (social distancing guidelines), or not following that closely,” she said. “We already have so many protocols that we have to follow and we get stressed, we get anxious and people have mental breakdowns. Am I physically safe? Probably. Mentally safe? Not really.”

Frankel, a recent college graduate, lives with her parents, who are older than 65, in Occidental and worries about passing the disease to them. She feels the store is making a real effort to protect her, but there’s only so much it can do to account for those customers flouting social distancing guidelines.

“It doesn’t seem like some people take the courtesy to actually respect the surroundings - like not tapping on the (plexi)glass, or not being within 6 feet, or getting mad at us when we try to line (them) up outside.”

Joe Butwill, store manager at Pacific Market in Santa Rosa, has posted signs reminding customers to stay 6 feet apart and wait until the person ahead of them in line has paid before putting their items on the checkout. When he was approached by his staff about what to do if they ever notice a customer coughing or sneezing and feel uncomfortable, he told them to alert a manager and that they would then offer to shop for that customer and bring the groceries out to the car.

“Some customers may have a perpetual cough that’s not because they’re sick, and now suddenly they’re viewed differently,” he said. “There’s a question of safety and humanity you have to answer. And that to me is the hardest part in all of this.”

Fresco, the shopper at Oliver’s, agreed the strain on social interaction is increasingly distressing.

“Here we are in a crisis and everyone covers their face and stays away from each other,” he said. “It’s kind of against the natural human instinct.”

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com.

Ethan Varian

Housing and homelessness, The Press Democrat 

I've lived in California for most of my life, and it's hard for me to remember when the state hasn't been in a housing crisis. Here in Sonoma County, sharply rising housing costs and increasing homelessness are reshaping what was long considered the Bay Area’s “affordable” region. As The Press Democrat’s housing and homelessness reporter, I aim to cover how officials, advocates, developers and residents are reacting to and experiencing the ongoing crisis.

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