British Columbia

Grocery stores make changes to reduce spread of virus, encourage social distancing

As health officials direct people to maintain a distance of at least 1-2 metres from each other to avoid spreading COVID-19, some grocery stores are making changes to help people keep that distance.

Some changes coming quickly to shops to ensure people can maintain a healthy distance

Shoppers arrive at the Real Canadian Superstore in Surrey wearing protective gloves and masks on Thursday, March 19, 2020. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded people how essential grocery stores are — they've also become one of the few places people can go on a regular basis, making them a potential depot for virus transmission. 

As the pandemic forces social changes at a break-neck pace, some retailers are also quickly making changes to help shoppers follow social distancing guidelines from health officials.

In Vancouver, many small shops are limiting the number of customers inside, leaving spaced-out lineups outside.

The city has declared a state of emergency, allowing enforcement of social distancing, among other measures. The orders, so far, have been largely directed at pubs and restaurants.

"Currently, the Provincial Public Health Order is clear: bars and clubs must be closed, while all other food and beverage establishments must guarantee patrons can be physically distant," said Mayor Kennedy Stewart in a written statement

Stewart added that, since the required distance isn't feasible in most cases, he's asking all food service businesses to close except for take out and delivery.

Limiting people in stores

Stewart said other public-facing businesses, including pharmacies and grocery stores, must also ensure social distancing is possible.

"They must take steps to ensure their customers are able to be physically distant. That might mean limiting the number of customers in their stores at any one time," he said, adding that officials will investigate violations on a case-by-case basis.

Some large retail chains have already announced changes this week — many have reserved the first hour of each business day for elderly shoppers and people with disabilities. 

At a Real Canadian Superstore in Surrey on Thursday, an employee was seen at the front door sanitizing shopping carts as customers entered.

Empire Co. Ltd., which owns the Sobeys and Safeway chains, IGA, Foodland and FreshCo, began installing Plexiglas shields for cashiers at some stores Thursday night. The company plans to roll out the protection to every store as soon as possible.

The business is also placing floor markers at check out to help ensure customers stay two metres apart while they're in line.

A Superstore employee sanitizes shopping carts, as people enter the grocery store in Surrey on Thursday, March 19, 2020. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Galen Weston, executive chairman of Loblaw Companies, which owns No Frills, T&T Supermarkets and Shoppers Drug Mart, issued a video statement on Thursday announcing changes in the company's stores.

"We're pre-packing more products to reduce touching and we're limiting the number of customers allowed in our busiest stores," said Weston.

Loblaws is also reducing store hours to allow staff more time to rest and sanitize. In some cases the stores will only have every other checkout lane open.

London Drugs said it's closely monitoring situations where locations may have more than 50 people in the store at one time — though the rule from provincial officials prohibiting gatherings of 50 people or more doesn't currently apply to retail.

"We have not had many circumstances where we are consistently over 50 customers in the store at one time, unlike some of our larger ... competitors," said London Drugs spokesperson Wendy Hartley in an emailed statement.

Hartley also said signs have been added to encourage customers to maintain proper social distance, and floor decals are now being printed to ensure checkout lineups remain spaced out.

This image is being printed onto decals that will be soon seen in London Drugs stores to demonstrate appropriate line spacing, according to a store spokesperson. (London Drugs)

Save-On-Foods did however release a statement on Thursday saying reusable bags will no longer be allowed and bottle returns have been suspended to prevent the spread of the virus.


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About the Author

Rafferty Baker is a video journalist with CBC News, based in Vancouver. You can find his stories on CBC Radio, television, and online at cbc.ca/bc.

With files from The Canadian Press

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