Grocery stores take precautions against the spread of coronavirus

BLUE HILL — If you’ve been inside your local grocery store over the past several days, chances are you’ve noticed a number of changes.

Perhaps you’ve noticed sneeze guards protecting cashiers at registers; signs explaining reduced capacity limitations; lines of tape indicating 6 feet of space between customers, many of whom are wearing cloth masks to cover their faces.

As grocery shopping has changed due to the coronavirus pandemic, so have the jobs of the people responsible for keeping local markets afloat. Through all of it, those workers are still responsible for carrying out a vital task: feeding their communities.

“People are still coming to you and relying on you for things they need,” said Benjamin Pitts, chief operating officer for Island Employee Cooperative on Deer Isle. “You have to find ways of adjusting to the situation to be able to get the job done.”

Pitts is busier than ever at Island Employee Cooperative, where he oversees two grocery stores, Burnt Cove Market in Stonington and The Galley in Deer Isle, as well as an Ace Hardware store. The grocery stores serve island customers and also distribute to Isle au Haut.

A man enters the 4 Corners Shop ’N Save in Columbia. Only 15 customers are allowed in at a time. To keep track, the store requires each customer to take one of the numbered shopping carts, which are sanitized between customers. ELLSWORTH AMERICAN PHOTO BY JOHANNA S. BILLINGS

Pitts’ stores and many others are operating on shortened hours. Between shedding staff who are uncomfortable or unable to work and spending more time at the beginning and end of each day wiping down and restocking shelves, there is less time to make sales to customers.

“The first problem was that we started losing staff, which was really tough on us,” Pitts said. “We’ve had to adjust schedules to have longer shifts covered by one employee rather than having two employees do shorter shifts.”

Whereas demand for other goods has fallen as people practice isolation, foodstuffs and other items typically found at grocery stores have been selling fast. With the demand for some products outstripping local supply (have enough toilet paper, everybody?), some store aisles are temporarily going bare as items fly off the shelves.

In most cases, though, those shelves are being restocked rather quickly as new shipments arrive. Although not finding what you need can be an agitating experience, Hannaford Supermarkets President Mike Vail acknowledged in an open letter to customers, it’s not a cause for long-term concern.

“We know this is frustrating; however, please be confident that our supply chain is healthy and resilient,” Vail said. “[We are] bringing product into our distribution centers every day and getting it out to stores as quickly as possible.”

Hannaford’s Ellsworth store offers curbside pickup, as do Burnt Cove Market, The Galley, Walmart and Tozier’s Family Markets in Bucksport, among others. With in-store capacities limited for the time being, that has proved to be a welcome option for customers.

“We’ve done this in the past, but we would have eight or nine deliveries one day a week,” Pitts said. “Last week, I had 140 over the three days we offered it and around 60 in one day on two of those days. It’s really exploded in popularity.”

Many stores are also designating certain hours, usually those in the early morning, solely to serving seniors. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified older adults as the most at-risk group for COVID-19.

Some of these measures are likely to be temporary precautions that will go by the wayside once the coronavirus pandemic passes. Yet others, such as sneeze guards, could be measures that stick around for the long haul.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people, and I’ve told them, ‘This is a catalyst for something; we just don’t know what yet,’” Pitts said. “Whatever it is, we’re going to adapt along the way and do what we need to do to provide for the people who need it.”

Mike Mandell

Mike Mandell

Mike Mandell is the sports editor at The Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander. He began working for The American in August 2016. You can reach him via email at [email protected]

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