Shoppers say physical distancing left up to them at busy grocery stores

Manitoba supermarkets are encouraging shoppers to stay two meters apart, but stop short of enforcing the rules.

Some store staff subjected to verbal abuse because of long lineups, empty shelves, union says

When the aisle isn't empty, are fellow shoppers keeping their distance? (TZIDO SUN/Shutterstock)

The province has asked supermarkets and other essential businesses to make sure people follow physical distancing rules in their stores to curb the spread of COVID-19, but customers say it's largely been left up to them to act responsibly.

"I've had someone say 'you're a little too close now,'" admitted shopper Laurie Chan, with a nervous giggle. "I apologized."

Shopper Laurie Chan admits it can be hard to keep a distance from others while getting groceries. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Manitoba's major grocery chains say they're respecting new limits on the number of people allowed in the shop at a time. Most outlets also have lines marked on the floor near the checkout, spacing people two metres apart as they wait.

But some shoppers say it's trickier to maintain a safe distance as they make their way through the aisles. Signs have been posted, asking customers to be careful.

Shopper Mason Rhodes said he's still seen people "bumping into each other."

Mason Rhodes says he tries to stay two metres away from other customers, but has seen others 'bumping into each other' in the aisles. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

"I do my best to stay away from people," he said, his arms overflowing with shopping bags. "If other people aren't going to respect that, that's their issue."

'Angry and inappropriate interactions'

In some cases, shoppers are also subjecting essential grocery store staff to verbal abuse when shelves are empty, long lines form or proper social distancing practices aren't being respected by patrons, said Jeff Traeger.

"Extremely angry and inappropriate interactions" are happening, said Traeger, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 832.

"We've seen some racist comments made and things like that."

Jeff Traeger, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 832, says burnout is becoming a concern for grocery store workers. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

The union is hearing about the tense interactions from some of its 7,500 grocery store worker members, said Traeger.

Many employees who usually work part-time are now putting in 70-hour work weeks, he said, and burnout is becoming a real concern.

"When you add the failure to see the public social distancing properly, and you also start to get the attitude coming at these workers, they put it all together.… For some of them, it's just not worth it," said Traeger.

"More and more, I'll be honest with you, our members are contacting us to ask how they can sit this out."

High-traffic aisles

Some chains, including Loblaws, Giant Tiger and Save-On-Foods have made high-traffic aisles one-way, to help people maintain the two-metre distance.

"They have arrows down the lanes, so you go one way down one aisle, then you go the other way up the other," said senior Jeannine Rozzi.

She says while most people manoeuvre the aisles correctly, she's still had some close encounters.

Senior Jeannine Rozzi says she just steps out of the way when others get too close in the supermarket. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

"A couple of people aren't that aware of it. So I just step back and go on my way." 

Premier Brian Pallister agrees, saying most Manitobans are respecting physical distancing guidelines. But he says those who aren't could force the province to crack down.

"It is a concern when people refuse to understand the hurtful consequences of their thoughtless conduct," he said during a news conference Monday.

"It is on the radar to see if there are necessary deterrents that need to be pursued because of this."

Brian Pallister said tougher rules could include penalties. More details are expected later this week.

About the Author

Emily Brass


Emily Brass is a radio news anchor and reporter at CBC Manitoba. She's worked as a national and local journalist at CBC in Montreal, Toronto, St. John's, Victoria and London, U.K.


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