As surging COVID-19 cases collide with Thanksgiving food shopping, city warns of a crackdown on crowds at grocery stores

Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz, Chicago Tribune
·9 min read

Grocery shoppers making their Thanksgiving runs may encounter something they haven’t seen since the early days of the pandemic: Lines outside of stores as the city steps up enforcement of capacity limits during the holiday rush.

When announcing a stay-at-home advisory that starts Monday, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot warned businesses will face fines and potentially be shut down if they don’t follow social distancing rules or properly manage crowds.

Chicago’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection plans to proactively investigate retail stores to ensure compliance with capacity limits and other COVID-19 regulations, which carry fines up to $10,000 for violations, spokesman Isaac Reichman said.

State and city rules cap essential businesses, such as grocery stores, at 50% occupancy and nonessential retailers, such as clothing stores, at 40%. Neither can have more than 50 people gathered at choke points, like checkout areas.

The Illinois Retail Merchants Association, a trade association for retailers in the state, sent a note to members after the mayor’s announcement Thursday, urging them to show they were monitoring customer counts..

“We strongly encourage you to take actionable steps to get capacity under control or the industry will see a crackdown at its most critical time of the year which will include aggressive fines,” the association said in the note, which was obtained by the Tribune.

The heightened enforcement comes as COVID-19 cases in Chicago, the suburbs and elsewhere in the state and nation soar. Illinois reported 15,415 confirmed or probable cases Friday and an average seven-day case positivity rate of 13.2%, up from 3.4% two months ago. As of Wednesday it had more people hospitalized with COVID-19 than at any point during the first spike of infections in the spring.

Meanwhile, grocers expect bigger holiday crowds than usual given that restaurant closures, scuttled travel plans and calls by city officials to cancel family gatherings could result in smaller yet more Thanksgiving dinners cooked at home overall.

Grocery stores, at times epicenters of public life during the pandemic, implemented numerous safety measures to reduce transmission of the coronavirus. As the months dragged on, however, some loosened their most stringent practices to avoid losing customers as people grew weary of the restrictions, said Amanda Lai, manager at Chicago-based retail consultancy McMillanDoolittle.

“Throughout the pandemic there has been COVID fatigue and also a lot of letting our guard down more,” Lai said.

With the threat of a crackdown, grocers are likely to tighten the ship.

“As we anticipate serving larger crowds this holiday season, we will need to enforce customer limits more vigorously when the store is busy,” said Vanessa Dremonas, chief executive officer at Pete’s Fresh Market, an independent chain of 16 grocery stores in Chicago and the suburbs.

Pete’s has maintained the same safety standards since the beginning of the pandemic, though it has scrapped some policies, like one-way aisles, which customers ignored and were too difficult to police, Dremonas said.

Pete’s places an employee at the door to count customers when a store gets busy, and if it approaches capacity — a 75,000-square-foot store is limited to 190 shoppers at any one time — there will be a line, she said. Dremonas encourages families to send just one person to do the shopping, and come on off days.

Enforcing the limits is difficult when 10% of the chain’s staff is out because they tested positive for COVID-19 or are quarantining for other reasons, Dremonas said. Between staffing challenges, and fielding complaints over masks, grocers need customer patience and cooperation, she said.

“It is such an exhausting marathon that we’ve been running,” Dremonas said.

Some retailers announced new features to reduce crowds and the risk of virus transmission during the busy holiday shopping season.

Target, which sells groceries as well as general merchandise, introduced line monitoring technology that allows customers to see if a store has a queue outside and reserve a spot in line. It also distributed 1,000 more handheld checkout devices so employees can ring up customers anywhere in the store, and it doubled the number of “drive up” spots, to 8,000 nationwide, where customers can get free contactless curbside pickup.

Meijer is adding more pickup time slots and by mid-December plans to install eight hand sanitizer stations near high-traffic areas at every store. It also plans to extend the time frame of promotions so people don’t all come at once.

Most grocers, including Jewel-Osco, Aldi, Mariano’s and Fresh Thyme, say they plan to manage the holiday crowds using the same safety measures they have implemented over the course of the pandemic.

At Mariano’s that includes mandating mask-wearing by both employees and customers, regular announcements reminding shoppers about social distancing and floor markers to help them stay 6 feet apart. There is also free pickup, plastic barriers at cash registers, enhanced cleaning protocols, cart wiping stations and a continued kibosh on samples.

“We’re making sure we are continuing to do everything correctly,” said Amanda Puck, spokeswoman for Mariano’s. Mariano’s has a system for monitoring store capacity based on transactions to ensure it abides by the 50% limit, she said.

Some grocers have reinstated buying limits on certain products. Mariano’s, for example, has limits on some cleaning and paper products.

But experts don’t expect the kind of shortages that plagued retailers in the spring. Retailers stocked up early to ensure shoppers don’t find empty shelves, though they may not always find their favorite brands, said Johnathan Foster, who leads supply chain logistics at Proxima, a procurement organization headquartered in Chicago and London.

“I think we’re better prepared than we ever have been because of the early lessons, the painful lessons that we experienced,” Foster said.

Lai said she expects to see some lines at grocery stores leading up to the holiday, but doesn’t think they will be as long as they were in spring because people have changed how they shop.

Shoppers have spread out when they go to the store, with weekdays now more popular than weekends, she said. People have also become more savvy about delivery and pickup options so they’re not going into stores as much.

“Curbside delivery at Target grew over 700% throughout the pandemic,” Lai said. “We see customers really embracing those services and retailers are adapting to meet those needs.”

Grocery stores are generally not considered as risky as other gathering places for COVID-19 contagion. Over the 30 days that ended Nov. 13, grocery stores were listed as the potential exposure location in 699 confirmed or probable cases reported in Illinois, or 3.1% of the total tracked, according to data from the state’s Department of Public Health. Schools, meanwhile, were implicated in 2,930cases, or 13%, and restaurants and bars another 9%.

But the exposure risk at grocery stores may be twice as high in lower-income communities than wealthier areas, according to a study published in the journal Nature. The study, based on a model created by researchers at Northwestern and Stanford universities that predicted virus transmission rates based on people’s movements during the first three months of the pandemic, found that grocery stores visited by people from lower-income areas had 59% more hourly visitors per square foot, with people staying in those stores 17% longer on average, creating greater potential for spread.

Smaller stores, where many people in low-income areas do their food shopping, may be part of the issue.

Dr. Linda Forst, a professor in environmental and occupational health sciences at University of Illinois at Chicago, said the large grocery chains have imposed the right safety measures, but convenience stores and other small shops may not be as conscientious or well equipped to do so.

Stores of all kinds would benefit from returning to strict capacity quotas, keeping stores open longer to spread out shopping times, or having more checkout lanes open so people don’t hover for long, said Forst, senior associate dean at UIC’s School of Public Health.

The risk of contracting the virus by just passing someone in a grocery aisle is very low, Forst said, but she advises against strangers standing next to each other chatting about the cereal options for five minutes. What matters is the dose of airborne particles you breathe in, she said.

“I don’t think the customers are at gigantic risk at grocery stores if they follow the rules,” she said. “But the employees that are standing there all day, stocking shelves and customers are hanging over them, I do worry about them.”

The United Food and Commercial Workers union recently said that among its grocery members nationwide, at least 108 have died from COVID-19 and more than 16,300 have been infected or exposed to the virus.

Local 881 of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents more than 34,000 grocery store, drugstore and food production workers in Illinois and northwest Indiana, said 500 of its members have tested positive, and it is concerned about the current safety measures at grocery stores.

Store management has not adequately enforced mask mandates so as not to confront customers, leaving workers exposed, said Steve Powell, president of Local 881. The union wants to see a comprehensive plan for how companies will address a surge in customers during the holidays.

Powell is also calling on employers to give workers hazard pay, calling the temporary “hero pay” many companies offered during the first few months of the pandemic a “publicity stunt” that was cut off far too soon.

Some retailers are still paying front line workers extra for working during the pandemic.

Target is spending $70 million to award a $200 bonus to more than 350,000 hourly employees this month, its fourth round of bonuses, totaling $1 billion, since March.

Trader Joe’s still offers an extra $2 per hour “thank you” wage, which “will remain in place until we are no longer considered an essential business,” said Kenya Friend-Daniel, public relations director.

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