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Reusable bags allowed back in Sonoma County stores after pandemic pause

Grocery shopper Sam Cagle is trying to find the balance between not being wasteful and trying to stay safe from the coronavirus.

So are Sonoma County retailers.

Cagle, of Santa Rosa, brought his own grocery bags to the Grocery Outlet on Fourth Street in Santa Rosa this week, the first time since the pandemic turned shopping on its ear.

Beginning in April, bringing your own bags into stores was deemed a no-no by county health order, spurred by worries of possible virus contamination spreading.

But that order expired late last month, allowing reusable bags to be brought into stores again.

Word is just beginning to trickle out as consumers and store operators are learning the new safety protocol to best avoid any possible spread.

Sloane Pagal, Sonoma County’s Zero Waste program manager, said her agency is working to educate consumers like Cagle and store owners about how to ease personal bags safely back into the shopping equation.

“We’re just trying to strike the balance bet health and safety and reducing waste. I hope this is a step in right direction for us,” she said.

It may be, but everyone from shoppers to store managers to corporate owners appears to be taking a cautious approach to resuming the “don’t forget your bags” mantra.

“The rules are so confusing and are always changing,” said Cynthia Hinton, shopping Friday at Trader Joe’s on Santa Rosa Avenue. “I just want to be safe myself and not spread anything around inside a store. But I also don’t need any more plastic in my life.”

Inside Trader Joe’s, store personnel discourage shoppers from using their own bags. If someone doesn’t want store-provided bags, checkers will load groceries back into a customer’s cart and shoppers can unload them into their own bags outside or straight into their vehicle.

The June order from the county health officer essentially reinstated the countywide Zero Waste Sonoma Carryout Bags Ordinance of 2014.

In that effort to cut down on plastic waste, retailers were barred from providing single-use plastic bags to customers and encouraged consumers to bring in their own reusable bags, or purchase a paper bag or reusable plastic bag.

But in April, because of concerns over the rapid coronavirus spread, Gov. Gavin Newsom suspended single-use plastic bag bans statewide and paused the fee for store-provided bags so people didn’t bring bags from home and elevate the risk of viral transmission. The local ordinance was paused so store operators could adhere to state and county health orders.

With the expiration of Newsom’s order and the restart of the local ordinance, retailers that have temporarily waived required bag charges must reinstate the charges and may begin to allow customers to use their personal reusable bags while adhering to safety protocols, Pagal said.

Read the county’s press release about the change here:

ZWS Carryout Bags.pdf

Those protocols include requiring customers who bring their own bags to bag their own purchases.

Customers are also recommended to leave their bags inside a cart or basket and to not place them onto high-touch surfaces such as checkout counters and conveyor belts. It’s also recommended to wash bags in between uses.

That leaves waste-conscious consumers like Cagle in a pickle. He always used to bring his own bags.

“I like the idea of not wasting so much plastic,” he said, an ethos echoed by several shoppers this week. “You can only use so many plastic bags for trash can liners.”

But he understands the temporary ban on home-bags, given how much we still don’t know about the new virus how quickly it can be spread unwittingly.

“It adds a tiny bit of risk. And it makes it a little slower in line. First you pay and then you bag,” he said. “But I’m OK with that.”

Store operators also walk a thin line, said Dean Molsberry of Molsberry’s Market in Larkfield.

“Where we’re running into an issue is, when people start bringing their own bags, they get their groceries and put them in their bags ‒ and they’re potentially contaminating them now,” he said. “And then they unpack them and put them on the conveyor ‒ and now checkers have touched (potentially) contaminated items.”

If customers bring bags and need to bag their own items, it slows down the checkout lanes. That can be a big deal for a small retailer like Molsberry’s, which has only five lanes normally, but only three now for social distancing.

“All of a sudden, the checker is starting to get a big line and other people are asking what’s going on down there,” he said.

Plus, now the checker must sanitize the conveyor belt and their work station.

Like at Trader Joe’s, Molsberry’s checkers will put groceries in a customer’s cart, and they can bag outside.

At several grocery stores visited this week, large and small, local and corporate, there were no signs in the window, nor were clerks advising customers who walked in with their own bags about the new bag protocols.

Some had outdated information in their windows prohibiting reusable bags in stores.

Personal bags are allowed by county health authorities, effective in mid-June. Some stores have outdated signs, including this one from Marshalls in Santa Rosa. (Lori A. Carter/The Press Democrat)
Personal bags are allowed by county health authorities, effective in mid-June. Some stores have outdated signs, including this one from Marshalls in Santa Rosa. (Lori A. Carter/The Press Democrat)

Most customers don’t read signs posted on the entrance doors, Molsberry said, and his staff hasn’t been telling people they can bring in bags. In fact, they’d prefer you don’t while the virus is still uncontrolled.

Pagal, of the county’s zero waste program, acknowledged the rollout of the new rules has been relaxed. She said the county and its social media platforms will be alerting residents and businesses soon.

“We wish to remind retailers and shoppers in Sonoma County that reusable bags are still the best option and that they are safe to use when protocol is followed,” she said.

The county has produced door signs that retailers can print and post to alert customers, which can be seen here:

PosterBags.pdf

During the past two months, Pagal said her agency has documented an increase in plastic bags in the waste stream.

“We are noticing an uptick in litter of single-use items and the amount of these bags collected in curbside programs,” she said.

Single-use plastic items escape into the environment and waterways, she said, and threaten habitat and wildlife at a far higher rate than their durable, reusable counterparts.

Though the 2014 ordinance prohibits stores and retailers form providing single-use plastic bags, Pagal said her agency won’t become the plastic bag police anytime soon.

“Our focus is not to impose penalties on these businesses, but to educate the store operators and the public,” she said. “We don’t want to come down with punitive actions at this point. That would be really insensitive. We have a very active zero waste task force willing to go into their community to share the information.”

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.

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