Nova Scotia

Grocery store staff fed up with 'social' shoppers who flout pandemic rules

As they put their health at risk during the COVID-19 pandemic to keep Canadians fed, grocery store employees are imploring shoppers to follow a few simple rules for the sake of others: Don't stop to chat, shop alone, and only shop once a week. And channel any anger and frustration elsewhere.

Some employees also say they’ve been verbally abused by angry, impatient customers

Canadians are encouraged to be as efficient as possible when they shop in grocery stores and to follow all the rules to keep others safe. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

For 20 years, Joy Barreda worked as a bouncer in bars. Now, she's a security guard in a grocery store in Toronto, ensuring people are practising physical distancing to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

She said people are treating the grocery store like it's a bar — chatting and getting way too close. 

"Everybody wants to look over each other's shoulder and look at produce or peek at the meats and we have to go, like, 'Sorry, folks, remember six feet for safety,'" Barreda told CBC News. 

Politicians and health officials across the country have been urging Canadians not to treat grocery shopping, an essential service, as a social activity, even if it happens to be one of the few remaining places where social interaction is even possible.  

Now, grocery store employees are adding their voices to the call, asking shoppers to be as efficient as possible: Don't stop to chat, shop alone, and only shop once a week.

WATCH | Tips for making sure your food is safe: 

The coronavirus can live up to several days on some surfaces, but experts say there's no reason to worry about the groceries you bring home. CBC News shows you how basic hygiene will keep you safe from your groceries. 1:36

Dino Virgona, who owns Fiesta Farms in Toronto, said most of his customers are respectful and appreciative, but the hours have been long and he and his staff are tired. He said people really need to stop shopping in groups. 

"If somebody's coming with their spouse, or one of their kids or something, 'It's OK today,' we would tell them, 'But next time, if you could please shop solo.'"

Many grocery stores have implemented safety measures such as sanitizing their carts, and installing Plexiglas as protective barriers in front of their cashiers and markers on the floor to separate customers when they line up to pay.

Employees say they have been verbally abused

CBC News has also spoken with a number of grocery store employees who say they have been verbally abused by angry, frustrated and impatient customers. 

They say they have been yelled at, cursed at, and accused of overreacting as they try to enforce physical distancing measures put in place by their employers.

They didn't want their names published for fear of losing their job.   

Shopping in a store can be a nerve-racking experience during the COVID-19 pandemic. Grocery store employees say they don't appreciate when that impatience and frustration is directed their way. (Carlos Osorio/Reuters)

The union representing grocery store employees in this country says its members don't have to tolerate bad behaviour and encourages them to report it to their manager or union representative.

"I know in retail very often we say, '[The] customer is No. 1. They come first.' But I don't think, in this case, it's true," said Anouk Collet, executive assistant to the national president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which has 250,000 members across Canada, more than half of whom work in grocery stores, including those owned by Loblaws, Sobeys and Metro.

The 'reckless few'

On Sunday, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil scolded shoppers

"I'm hearing stories of grocery stores packed with people," he said during the province's daily COVID-19 briefing.  

He said if people go to the grocery store and the parking lot is full, they should find another place to shop. 

"The reckless few, shame on you," the premier said, noting most Nova Scotians are doing their part to follow physical distancing rules. 

On Monday, John Haggie, Newfoundland and Labrador's health minister, called on the public to follow the shopping guidelines.

"One person, one trip, each week," Haggie said. "Don't take your children with you unless there is really no alternative, and please don't let them lick the handles on the shopping cart." 

The safety measures put in place by employers are not just to protect customers and staff, but also their families and everyone else they come into contact with.   

Transplant recipient pleads for safe shopping

Lisa Walsh of Antigonish, N.S., knows firsthand just how important that is. She's a severely immunocompromised transplant recipient who lives with bronchitis, asthma and an array of other medical issues.

Lisa Walsh, a severely immunocompromised transplant recipient, urges Canadians to shop alone and only when necessary. (Submitted by Lisa Walsh)

Her partner, mother and mother-in-law all work in grocery stores and she has a serious message for the people who continue to shop socially. 

"You could pass it on to me or an elderly person and never know if you could be responsible for that person's death."
 

About the Author

Kayla Hounsell

Senior reporter

Kayla Hounsell is a network reporter with CBC News based in Halifax. She covers the Maritime provinces for CBC national news on television, radio and online. She welcomes story ideas at kayla.hounsell@cbc.ca.

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