Grocery industry faces challenges amid shopping surge


James Bartlett

Customers bought up most paper goods at a Tewksbury Market Basket amid the coronavirus pandemic

James Bartlett

With states across the country, including Massachusetts, deeming grocery stores essential businesses, several chains in the Bay State are taking measures to try and curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Last week, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker announced new regulations for grocery stores to follow amid the crisis, including banning the use of reusable bags. Baker also ordered stores to set aside at least one hour a day for customers over 60, offer hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes to clean carts,  ensure customers and staff maintain 6 feet of distance between each other and close self-service food stations.

Maggie McGovern, a cashier at the Tewksbury Market Basket, said the virus is on her mind when at work but that she still feels safe on the job.

“As a cashier who interacts with many customers each day, it is definitely something I think about. However, between sanitation and social distancing measures the store has taken, as well as being conscious of my own habits, I feel safe continuing to work here,” McGovern said.

Some chains, like Market Basket, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Walmart, are having reduced hours to give more time to employees to restock shelves overnight, according to WCVB.

Chains like Stop and Shop, Shaws and Star Market have installed shields at cash registers to protect cashiers and customers from one another when checking out, WCVB reported. Market Basket has not installed such shields, but has marked checkout lines with tape to remind customers to maintain six-foot distance between each other.

Some employees, like Kylie Whiting, who works at the Nashua, N.H. Market Basket, have decided to stay off the job during the pandemic. Whiting said she is taking a leave of absence from her job as an assistant in the check-out area because of health concerns for herself and her family.

“Working in a store that has thousands of people coming in and out defeats the purpose of having social distancing,” Whiting said.

Whiting said that her managers were understanding of her decision.

Some shelves at places like Market Basket are being emptied on daily. Cora McGrath works in the grocery department at the Market Basket in Tewksbury. McGrath said customers have been flocking to the store.

“It is crazy and chaotic at times,” McGrath said. “When this first started, everyone was panicking and a lot of the shelves were completely empty. Certain products like toilet paper, hand sanitizer, wipes and other cleaning products were completely wiped out.”

Nicole Goodwin, the grocery manager at the Tewksbury Market Basket, has spent 17 years with the company. She said her department has turned into a day and night operation, with night crews coming in to stock and sanitize the store six to seven nights a week.

“We are working night crews to fill the store back up,” Goodwin said. “Some aisles have a major number of out of stocks and still do since this has happened. Closing early at 6 p.m. with the reduced hours has also changed how I’ve scheduled part time workers.” 

Instacart, the grocery delivery service that offers same day delivery, has seen an increase in its number of users and workers.

“There have been a lot more Instacart workers working here. There are a lot of new ones who are not familiar with the store so they are constantly asking where things are located,” McGrath said.

However, many Instacart workers, demanding greater pay and better access to paid leave and disinfectants, stayed off the job Monday. To pressure the company to meet their demands, according to the New York Times.

Many Whole Foods workers also stayed off the job Tuesday in a “sick out,” in which workers called out of work. The Whole Foods employees are demanding the company increase worker safety and offer hazard and sick pay for employees who may be sick but are untested for the coronavirus, according to USA Today.

Whole Foods’ website said the company is allowing unlimited call-outs during this time, special employee shopping hours and increased wages by $2 per hour for full and part-time employees through the month of April, as well as enhanced overtime pay. 

Whole Foods employees who are quarantined or tested positive for COVID-19 will receive up to two weeks paid time off, according to Amazon, Whole Food’s parent company. The stores are also enhancing daily cleanliness and sanitation protocols, as well as operating under strict social distancing guidelines.

Market Basket has gotten creative with it’s advice for social distancing. The company’s social media has recommended standing six of their famous orange and white floor tiles apart, each being one square foot in size, to help customers and employees practice social distancing.

However, despite measures taken by stores, several workers at Massachusetts Market Basket and Whole Foods locations have tested positive for COVID-19 according to WCVB.

Market Basket announced Wednesday afternoon it would limit how many customers were allowed in a store, the number depending on size of the store, in order to promote social distancing.

Experts recommend limiting shopping trips to once a week or every two weeks during non-peak hours and without children or the elderly. Masks and gloves are not currently recommended by the CDC, as they are recommending masks be reserved for healthcare workers. Contactless payment, like Apple Pay, is also recommended when checking out to reduce contact with surfaces and cashiers.