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:
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.