Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is providing readers free access to critical local stories about the coronavirus during this time of heightened concern. See more coverage here.
While many people can work from home during the coronavirus, cashiers, stockers and other grocery store employees are on the front lines of the pandemic, constantly putting themselves in close contact with shoppers.
Harmons Grocery stores in Utah took steps over the weekend to keep these vulnerable — and essential — Utah workers safe, Chairman Bob Harmon announced Monday.
“We’ve installed barriers at our checkout stations to help protect our front-end staff, allowing our associates to assist you while maintaining a safe distance,” he wrote in an email to customers.
The plexiglass barriers also have been installed in the pharmacy and business areas of the store.
“We ask that you remain behind the barrier until your purchase has been completed and groceries bagged,” the letter states. “Please be patient as the store associate properly cleans and sanitizes the station between transactions.”
Harmons also has suspended the use of reusable bags that customers bring from home to avoid excess plastics.
“Please understand that while we are dedicated to recycling,” Harmon said, “our choice to temporarily suspend the use of reusable bags is solely to help stop the spread of COVID-19."
At checkout, customers can ask for paper bags, instead of plastic, and continue to recycle at home.
Stores also have stopped strep throat screenings at its pharmacies.
Harmon urged customers to do their part and distance themselves from employees and one another.
“Social distancing is our focus,” he said, '"So we are asking associates and customers to maintain a 6-foot distance from each other in the aisles and throughout the store."
Many labor groups across the country are calling for states to reclassified grocery store employees as “essential emergency workers,” allowing them to get benefits — such as sick leave and health insurance — similar to first responders and health care workers.
“We can’t serve our customer base if we don’t take care of employees,” said Lindee Nance, vice president of marketing for Harmons. “We want to protect them however we can.”
Last week, like many other grocery stores, Harmons also shortened its operating hours, she said, which has allowed more time for employees to clean and stock the store.
The move helped “alleviate some of the stress and pressure for associates,” she said. "It enabled them to stock the shelves without having to navigate around customers.”
Nance said Harmons has not needed to hire more workers — as Smith’s Food & Drug has advertised.
The health department order that stopped sit-down dining at restaurants and bars also forced the closure of cafe and fresh-food buffets inside grocery stores. Staffers from those areas of the store, she said, have been moved to departments with more pressing needs.
Mariah Johnson said when she was hired last November at the Smith’s store in Lehi, she never expected to play such a critical role in a state and national emergency.
“I didn’t realize how important we would become, until this happened,” she said. “You need your groceries.”
In recent weeks, besides running the cash register, Johnson and most of her co-workers have worked extra hours, sanitizing surfaces, moving freight and stocking shelves.
“Once we close," she said, every one pitches in "so the store can catch up.”