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Grocery stores grow ever more critical amid coronavirus

The people who work in supermarkets deserve the protections and benefits of essential workers.

A Walmart employee loads up a customer's car in Salem, N.H., with an online order. Grocery store workers are on the front lines of the coronavirus outbreak and deserve the benefits of essential workers.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Editor’s note: On Saturday, after the publication of this editorial, Governor Baker announced that grocery store workers were among the essential employees eligible for emergency child care.

Few things will be as critical to our well-being in the weeks ahead as the food supply chain that sustains us all — from the corner grocery to the mega-supermarket to food delivery services. Hospital workers will care for the sickest among us, but it is those grocery store workers who will care for and feed the rest of us.

It’s no wonder that Vermont and Minnesota have included grocery store employees and others involved in the food supply chain as “essential” for purposes of providing certain worker benefits, especially free child care services, during the current health emergency — an example Massachusetts would do well to follow.


We have learned the hard way that there is nothing quite so scary as empty supermarket shelves — devoid of toilet paper and paper towels and canned soup. There is an ugly side to public panic and the evidence is on those vacant shelves.

No, there is no toilet paper shortage.

“Rest assured, tissue products continue to be produced and shipped – just as they are 52 weeks each year,” Heidi Brock, president and CEO of the American Forest & Paper Association, said in a statement.

Those empty shelves, well, they’re largely on us.

Cooler heads are prevailing in the corporate offices of major supermarket chains, many of which have stepped up to bring sensible policies that will benefit not simply their bottom lines but also the health of their customers.

In our own area, Stop & Shop was among the first to announce special early morning shopping hours (6 a.m. to 7:30 a.m.) for those over the age of 60 and those with impaired immune systems — in short, those falling into the high-risk group for COVID-19.


At the time of the announcement, the food chain noted presciently, “We plan to make these hours available EVERY day during this period, so it’s not necessary for everyone to come on the first day. This could result in large crowds, the very situation we are looking to prevent, as it will make it more difficult for customers to practice social distancing.”

So, yes, there were lines at some locations. But that’s a preventable problem.

The Back Bay Trader Joe’s, which bills itself as “the single smallest Trader Joe’s in existence,” has taken a different approach — one that makes it safe for all customers by limiting the number of people allowed in at any one time. It also limits quantities to no more than two of any item and no more than one small shopping cart full. The fellow at the door controlling traffic into the store has a handy spray bottle of hand sanitizer for those entering and exiting.

The firm is planning to set up a special bonus pool for workers in each store based on recent sales increases.

The list of “best practices” grows as the challenges of this pandemic become ever more obvious. Many chains have had to adjust store hours to give employees more time to restock those empty shelves. Many have adopted “sanitizing stations” of one variety or another, employees with spray bottles or giving out antiviral wipes .


But this new era of grocery shopping is also a matter of economic survival as chains see the landscape shifting before their very eyes. There’s nothing like a pandemic to make people abandon supermarket aisles and look for online alternatives.

Last year, only 4 percent of grocery sales in the country came from online purchases, according to Nielsen. As of March 15, downloads of the Instacart app were up 218 percent over last year and Walmart’s grocery app was up 160 percent. And there is a body of evidence that many of those new online subscribers are over the age of 60.

Roaming the supermarket aisles, making those inevitable impulse buys of snacks, may indeed become a thing of the past. But for now, those markets are a critical part of the present, and their workers deserve the bonuses and the status of the essential employees they have become.

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Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.