Food security fears after COVID-19 case closes La Loche, Sask., grocery store

One of the two grocery stores in La Loche, Sask., has shut temporarily after one of its employees tested positive for COVID-19, according to an executive at the North West Company. 

Northern store shuts temporarily, company says all staff to be tested

The highway checkpoint at La Loche, Sask. The northern community is the centre of the province's largest outbreak of COVID-19. (Submitted by Raymond Dauvin)

One of the two grocery stores in La Loche, Sask., has shut temporarily after one of its employees tested positive for COVID-19, according to an executive at the North West Company. 

The grocery store's closure has triggered concerns about food security and a possible shortage of cleaning supplies in the community, which is the centre of a COVID-19 outbreak in northern Saskatchewan. 

As of Thursday, the Saskatchewan Health Authority had reported 138 active cases in the province's far north region — which accounts for 70 per cent of total provincial cases. There have also been two COVID-19 related deaths at the long-term care centre in La Loche, which is about 600 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon.

Alex Yeo, president of Canadian retail for the North West Company, which owns Northern and NorthMart stores, said in a statement that an employee who last worked at the store on May 4 tested positive for COVID-19. 

Store operations have been shut down — except for limited pharmacy services — and all store staff will now be tested for the virus Thursday and Friday, said the statement. 

Yeo said in the statement that community members who came into contact with the employee will be notified by Saskatchewan's health authorities. The statement said the store will be thoroughly disinfected. 

"Northern is working quickly and diligently and will reopen as soon as the Public Health inspector advises that it is safe to do so," said the statement.

While the store had been closed for in-person shopping since May 1, it had been providing delivery service and curbside pickup.

La Loche now has one grocery store in operation, Centre Point Grocery, which also has a pharmacy. Centre Point Grocery could not be immediately reached for comment.

La Loche Mayor Robert St. Pierre said he was aware of the positive test at the grocery store. 

"I am dealing with that as we speak," said St. Pierre. 

The Saskatchewan Health Authority referred questions to the North West Company.

Last week an employee at a general store and gas station near Beauval, Sask., about 450 kilometres north of Saskatoon, tested positive for COVID-19. Health authorities instructed anyone who had shopped at the store or purchased gas over a two-week period in April to self-isolate until May 12.

'In a vulnerable state'

Georgina Jolibois, a former La Loche mayor and former NDP MP for the region, said she is worried the closure of the Northern store will lead to a shortage of fresh vegetables and fruits, cleaning supplies and other food products as the one remaining store faces a surge in demand. 

"With only one grocery store now open, not everyone will get an opportunity to get groceries today," said Jolibois. 

Jolibois said the Northern store also had slightly lower prices and its closure could impact seniors, single mothers and others on low income when it comes to choosing what to buy. 

Jolibois said the stores serve a local and regional population of about 5,500 to 6,000 people.

Saskatchewan has put COVID-19 travel restrictions on northern communities, restricting non-essential travel to the north from southern communities and limiting travel by northern residents between northern communities.

"We are literally in a very vulnerable state," she said.