Early on in the pandemic, many people went grocery shopping as infrequently as possible, lining up outside stores on a mission to stock up like they were preparing for the apocalypse. Workers, meanwhile, wore protective equipment and ― in some cases — received hazard pay for their bravery.
Nearly nine months into the COVID-19 era, however, a sense of normalcy ― or at least routine ― has returned. Inside supermarkets and big-box stores, some of the more visible signs of the health crisis have receded. Industry observers say some stores have pulled back on physically monitoring their entrances to keep tabs on capacity. Floor arrows still indicate one-way aisles, but fewer shoppers are paying attention. And it’s not always clear whether carts have been sanitized between uses.
Now, large stores face a crucial test as the start of the holiday shopping season collides with a dangerous spike in COVID-19 infections. This week, it’s grocers serving customers shopping for Thanksgiving. By Friday, big-box retailers will be the main attraction.
“I have a sense that some stores have been slacking off,” said Edgar Dworsky, founder and editor of the publication Consumer World, who has been keeping an eye on protocols at stores around the Boston area. “While maybe they were very good at the beginning, now, not so much.”
Though practices vary widely across chains and locations, companies say they remain in compliance with state public health rules.
Stop & Shop says it has been stationing attendants at the front of stores to keep track of who is coming and going, making sure they don’t exceed their state-mandated limit of 50 percent of normal capacity.
“We will require that customers queue up outside of the store — maintaining at least 6 feet apart — if we are nearing the capacity in-store,” Stop & Shop spokeswoman Jennifer Brogan said in an e-mail. She also outlined protocols such as providing masks and gloves to employees and maintaining one-way aisles.
Roche Bros. Supermarkets said it is taking a similar approach.
“We are following all government recommendations and our stores continue to be diligent with mask wearing, cleaning and social distancing,” the company said in a statement. “We have associates at the front of our stores to keep an eye on capacity and are staffed and ready for holiday shopping.”
Recent visits to various supermarkets around Eastern Massachusetts found entrances at some stores unattended. Others, at busier times, had staff asking people to line up outside to wait for their turn to shop.
Though the state requires stores to monitor and manage their capacity, there is no rule mandating how they monitor entrances. Some stores use their surveillance systems to keep track of traffic flow, while others have managers walk the aisles to keep an eye on things. Some only move a person to the door when they’re approaching capacity.
Susan Lumenello, director of public health in Burlington ― home to Burlington Mall and large standalone stores that could easily fill to 50 percent capacity during the holiday season — said that as the pandemic has stretched on, merchants have developed a better understanding of how to manage foot traffic.
Lumenello said that the town has received a stream of complaints about crowded stores since the spring, but that retailers have addressed any issues her department has raised.
“In the beginning, they may have counted, and they may have said, ‘Well we’ve never gotten to this capacity, and we don’t expect to get there,’ ” Lumenello said. “Now that we’re getting into the holidays, though, and the stores are getting busier, they may have to get back into that type of counting. And we’ve had those conversations with those stores.”
Around the country, there have been signs of a more relaxed attitude toward public health among both stores and customers.
Marissa G. Baker, director of the industrial hygiene program at the University of Washington, has been tracking protocols at stores in the Pacific Northwest since April as part of an ongoing research study. She said she has seen stores relent on a several fronts, particularly when it comes to cleaning surfaces.
That may be due to evolving science on how the virus that causes COVID-19 spreads, Baker said. Scientists now believe that people are much more likely to get sick from droplets spread through the air than from touching a counter or shelf. That means masks, social distancing, and proper air flow are top priorities.
Baker said some of the most effective measures stores can take would be mostly invisible to customers. Those include upgraded ventilation and filtration, and benefits packages for employees that allow them to stay home when they’re sick while compensating them fairly for the risks they take by being in stores for extended periods.
“If I were a person going to the grocery store, wanting to really ensure that I’m keeping safe, I might want to go at off hours, at a less crowded time if it’s at all possible,” she said. “I don’t see grocery shopping as being more risky than it has been, even as the stores have been a little more crowded.”
At Stop & Shop, workers say one of the biggest concerns is customers’ behavior.
Fernando Lemus, president of the United Food Commercial Workers Local 1445, which represents Stop & Shop workers, said long lines for self-checkout are especially problematic, as more people try to avoid having workers handle their food. Customers also tend to ignore the one-way arrows in aisles.
“We know there is the risk of more customers coming into our stores probably walking around with COVID,” Lemus said. “People have somehow kind of relaxed because they feel more comfortable, I guess, that everybody’s wearing a mask.”
For some customers, the anxiety over shopping has never fully subsided.
At the Trader Joe’s off Memorial Drive in Cambridge on Tuesday, Simone Hnilicka, 62, was making a quick trip to wrap up her Thanksgiving preparations. She said she ordered groceries online until around May because she had major surgery just before the pandemic hit.
Now that she is shopping in-person, Hnilicka said, she is trying to stick to small stores.
“I would rather not encounter that fear and nervousness,” she said. “In the large stores, there is too much going on. In the smaller stores, I know where things are — I get my items and then split.”
But Hnilicka acknowledged she has scaled back some personal precautions that she observed in the spring.
“I used to wash my groceries, but I’m not wiping everything down neurotically anymore,” she said. “There was a lot of unknown back then.”
Katie Johnston of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Anissa Gardizy contributed to this report.