Walmart closes more Massachusetts stores following Quincy death, Worcester outbreak

The chain announced Wednesday it would temporarily close Avon and Abington stores due to coronavirus concerns.

Yok Yen Lee, 69, of Quincy with her daughter Elaine Eklund of Wellesley. Lee, who worked at the now-closed Walmart store in Quincy, died of COVID-19, according to Eklund. HANDOUT

Two more Walmart stores in Massachusetts have closed as the company deals with deadly outbreaks here and around the country, including one in Quincy, where a 69-year-old woman who worked at a now-shut store died this week.

Stores in Avon and Abington have been temporarily closed — the Abington store for the second time — a company spokesman said Wednesday, joining the Quincy store, which has been closed since Monday. A Walmart in Worcester reopened this week after being shut down by local officials amid an outbreak that infected 81 employees.

Despite being one of the first major companies in the country to implement a safety plan, Walmart has struggled to prevent outbreaks at its stores. And though the retailer has limited the number of customers who can enter at one time based on square footage, some experts noted that the sheer size of its stores mean that large numbers of people can still be inside at once.

In Quincy, Yok Yen Lee was rushed to the hospital on April 20, shortly after the last day she worked her shift at Walmart, according to her daughter, Elaine Eklund, of Wellesley.

Eklund said she did not feel Walmart had done enough to protect her mother’s life.

“I’m angry,” Eklund said. “I never expected this to happen, and I’m still in shock.”

Lee died on Sunday. The next day, Quincy health officials announced that the store would be closed until they could test all employees for the coronavirus and decide a proper course of action. Officials in Abington and Avon indicated that Walmart seemed to be acting to close stores in their communities because of the concern stemming from the Quincy death.

Across the country, 21 Walmart workers have died from COVID-19, according to United for Respect, an advocacy group, leaving behind grieving loved ones like Eklund.

“I’m in distress,” Eklund said. “This is a tremendous loss for our family.”

Eklund described her mother as a vibrant, loving person who supported her family. “She was always there for me,” she said. “She was an amazing woman, so thoughtful.”

Lee enjoyed spending time with her two grandchildren — a 3-year-old and a newborn — who called her Po Po. “She was really happy about having another grandchild,” her daughter said. “And then she died.”

Eklund said that her mother was fit and active, but nevertheless struck down rapidly by the disease. “She was healthy. She went to Zumba every day. So this is really shocking."

Walmart communications representative Phillip Keene wrote in an e-mail on Tuesday, “We want to again share that our hearts go out to the friends and loved ones of the associate we lost at our Quincy store.”

But even before Lee’s death, the Quincy Walmart was on health officials’ radar. “We were getting complaints about too many people in the store, people not social distancing,” said Ruth Jones, Quincy health department commissioner.

In response, Jones had an inspector from her office set up watch in the Walmart every day from April 27 to May 1. Walmart’s corporate offices also sent a district representative to observe how the store was enforcing safety policies.

“They did see deficiencies as far as social distancing,” Jones said.

Jones’ team observed the shortcomings days after Lee had already fallen critically ill. “My mom was hospitalized two weeks ago, and the Quincy Walmart knew about it,” Eklund said. “Even though Walmart knew my mom was in the ICU, they didn’t change anything.”

In response to Eklund’s allegations, Keene wrote, “Our store had measures in place to help protect our associates and customers.” He cited metered entry, sneeze guards protecting cashiers, temperature checks before shifts, and other precautions.

“We cooperated with city officials prior to deciding to temporarily close the store and were not cited for any issues," Keene said.

Since early April, Walmart stores have had a policy in place limiting customer entry to five people per 1,000 square feet. That works out to roughly 20 percent of normal capacity — an even stricter standard than state guidelines asking grocery stores not to exceed 40 percent capacity.

But retail analyst Paula Rosenblum noted 20 percent capacity could still mean large numbers of shoppers. “Think about a Walmart during a Black Friday morning, and that tells you that their legal capacity is very, very big,” she said.

Jones’s department found that metered entry was not enough at the Quincy store. Neither were signs encouraging shoppers to remain 6 feet apart and walk in one direction down aisles. “[Signs are] something that you can put in a store, but you need the monitoring,” said Jones. “And I just don’t think that the monitoring was happening as much as it should.”

Elaine Nsoesie, an assistant professor of global health at Boston University, said it’s up to stores to remind customers to follow the rules. “People are not consciously thinking of social distancing,” she said. “Those reminders are helpful.”

According to Marty Golightly, Abington’s public health director, Lee’s death seemed to prompt Walmart to step up precautions in its other Massachusetts locations.

"I think it has more to do with Quincy than with our store,” said Golightly, who has received few public complaints about the Abington Walmart.

Kathleen Waldron, Avon’s health agent, agreed that Walmart is now being proactive. “Walmart has taken the initiative of closing themselves to have all employees tested for COVID-19,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Golightly noted that both Abington and Avon border towns that have been hard-hit by the pandemic. “They’re closing to make sure they make all the best steps for their associates and for the surrounding community,” he said. “I think we should be encouraging that.”

Abington’s Walmart could reopen as soon as Sunday, pending test results and a final inspection. The Avon store “will reopen when they have enough employees who have tested negative,” Waldron said.

Quincy’s Walmart is working with health officials to plan for reopening. Jones noted that the store had already begun to better enforce social distancing by the end of last week, before it closed.

But for Lee, any improvements came too late. “I never got to say goodbye or anything,” Eklund said. “I only saw her through the window at the ER for two seconds. I never got to say goodbye.”

Janelle Nanos of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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