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After worker’s death, grocery stores lay out measures to keep shoppers, staff safe under new state rules

Grocery workers protested at Whole Foods in the South End Tuesday, demanding personal protective equipment and hazard pay.
Grocery workers protested at Whole Foods in the South End Tuesday, demanding personal protective equipment and hazard pay.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

One day after state officials released updated safety rules for grocery stores amid the COVID-19 pandemic, leading supermarket chains on Wednesday laid out a number of measures they’re taking to protect customers and staff.

The measures were announced amid growing fears among employees about contracting the coronavirus. Over the weekend, 59-year-old Vitalina Williams, who worked at a Market Basket in Salem and at a Lynn Walmart, succumbed to COVID-19.

In a statement Wednesday, Walmart said Williams “was adored by her Walmart family and will be greatly missed. Our hearts go out to her family.”

Market Basket had previously said that the “entire Market Basket community is deeply saddened” by Williams’s death and offering “support to her family and co-workers during this difficult time.”


Market Basket said it has been “constantly refining our operations focused on the health and safety of our customers and associates.” The company said in a statement that on April 2 it began limiting the number of shoppers in stores and has made gloves available to workers. Market Basket is also providing masks to workers and installing plexiglass shields at checkouts.

“We also give guidance to associates to ensure that they are practicing good hygiene including washing their hands frequently and only coming to work in good health,” the statement said. “The company has implemented a heightened disinfection program focusing on high-touch surfaces including cash registers, counter tops, register belts, red baskets, shopping carriages, payment devices, touch pads, desks, door and drawer handles, phones, and computers.”

In addition, Market Basket said, all stores have a “disinfection protocol at the store entrance with associates assisting in wiping down all the shopping.”

Grocery store workers protest outside of Whole Foods
Grocery store workers stood outside of a Whole Foods in Boston, asking for hazard pay and personal protective equipment. (Shelby Lum|Globe Staff)

Also on Wednesday, Walmart spokeswoman Anne Hatfield said that the company has implemented a number of precautions at its stores, including taking temperatures of all employees and asking them about symptoms on a short questionnaire at the start of their shifts. If a worker has a temperature of 100 degrees or higher or answers yes to any of the questions, they can’t work.


And, Hatfield said, the company has developed an emergency leave policy specifically for the pandemic that applies to all full-time, part-time, and temporary employees.

In addition, she said, masks and gloves are being distributed to all stores for employee use, plexiglass guards have been installed at checkout counters and pharmacies, high-traffic areas such as self-checkout lanes are being cleaned regularly, shopping carts are being wiped down after each use, signs and floor markings have been added to remind customers about social distancing, and stores are limiting the number of patrons allowed inside at any given time.

In a separate statement Wednesday, Stop & Shop, which operates 134 Massachusetts locations, said it’s “making every effort possible to maintain a safe environment for our associates and customers.”

The company listed a number of safety measures it has rolled out, including aisles that are one-way traffic only; obtaining KN95 masks for workers, thousands of which have already been delivered to staffers in Greater Boston; barring the use of reusable bags; installing plastic guards at registers and pharmacies; marking floors with tape at each register to keep customers six feet apart; temporarily closing deli counter service; opening every other register lane when possible to create further social distancing; and reserving shopping hours from 6 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. for customers over 60.


Stop & Shop also listed what it called “robust” cleaning procedures, such as sanitizing high-touch areas; having workers wash hands at more frequent intervals and use hand sanitizer on a regular basis; ensuring workers have access to disinfecting wipes, gloves, and hand sanitizers; making disinfecting wipes available at store entrances so customers can wipe down carriages, hand baskets, and ScanIt! electronic devices before use; suspending all self-serve options like olive bars, wing bars, salad bars, hot bars, and coffee bars; and hiring a third-party cleaning company to allow for a “dedicated” cleaner at each store from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

A number of other supermarket chains that operate in Massachusetts have posted similar materials on their websites, and many of the measures mirror the state Department of Public Health rules issued Tuesday.

They were released in an effort to “clarify” an earlier order from the state commissioner of public health, Dr. Monica Bharel, regarding safety protocols at food stores, said a written copy of the guidance from the agency.

All grocery stores must limit occupancy to 40 percent of maximum capacity, but stores with a maximum occupancy of 25 persons or fewer are exempt. But local boards of health should consult with smaller stores to ensure appropriate protections are in place, the state said.

In addition, store staff must monitor the number of customers entering and exiting to demonstrate compliance with the 40 percent order, and no local health board is permitted to enforce a different limit.


BJs Wholesale Club recently announced that no more than 20 percent of a store’s capacity will be allowed inside at any time.

If lines form outside stores, the state guidelines said, staff should monitor them to ensure customers are staying at least six feet away from each other.

, And if long lines form or “other physical security concerns arise, local law enforcement should be notified and consulted.”

The DPH also advised local health boards not to issue rules on which products grocery stores can or can’t sell, or how items can be displayed. If health boards have concerns about certain products, they should consult with store operators to discuss the “value of special safety protocols to reduce risk.”

Katie Johnston and Jon Chesto of the Globe staff and correspondent Jeremy C. Fox contributed to this report.

Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.