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As Alabama grocery stores serve essential need, capacity limits and safety measures added

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Johnson's Giant Food

Casher Kyndal Gallahar wipes down her station between shoppers at Johnson's Giant Food in Coldwater. At checkout, shoppers are greeted by cashers that are shielded by a plexiglass shield in the front and a clear curtain in the back to protect both the shoppers and cashers. Photo by Stephen Gross / The Anniston Star

MONTGOMERY — Grocery retailers across Alabama are implementing new safety measures and limiting the number of people inside their stores in an effort to keep employees and customers safe from the novel coronavirus.

Part of Gov. Kay Ivey’s stay-at-home order issued on Friday included limiting the maximum occupancy of essential retailers to no more than 50 percent their normal capacity. Stores are also asked to maintain proper social distancing guidelines for customers and comply with sanitation guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Some municipalities are deciding their own maximum capacity for stores and are limiting occupancy even further than Ivey’s order.

The city of Mobile amended its guidelines on Monday, saying that retail and grocery stores can’t allow any more than 40 percent their normal capacity and large “super centers” like Target, Costco, Sam’s Club and Wal-Mart are allowed no more than 20 percent of normal capacity.

The city of Montgomery last week attempted to implement stricter rules before the statewide order was put in place, limiting the number of customers in a store to 10 or fewer. Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall issued a statement Friday saying the city’s interpretation of the March 27 health order was incorrect and the 10-person rule was unenforceable.

Now grocery stores across the state are implementing social distancing guidelines to help protect both shoppers and workers.

Ellie Taylor, president of the Alabama Grocers Association, said the group’s members support the measures.

“The 50 percent maximum capacity will help us keep the numbers under control and maintain the safety of our other customers and our employees,” Taylor told Alabama Daily News.

The Alabama Department of Public Health has suggested ways Alabamians can protect themselves when going grocery shopping by minimizing trips to the store whenever possible, carrying hand sanitizer with them and using sanitizing wipes on carts and shopping online for either delivery or pick-up of groceries when they can.

Taylor said the grocers association suggests that one person from each household be the designated shopper for the family and to refrain from taking entire households to grocery stores.

Consumers who want to use their own reusable bags are asked to wash them after every use and to bag their own groceries when checking out, Taylor said.

Plexiglass barriers are also being placed in check-out aisles at several major retailers.

Most retailers on their websites said they would supply masks and gloves for their employees if asked but are not requiring them to wear them during work hours. Taylor said some Alabama grocery stores are starting to use gloves and masks but it is not a requirement that they are used.

“I think right now it’s a question of, ‘Are they available?'”

Taylor said employees and customers are feeling fearful right now about COVID-19, but Alabama grocery stores are going to maintain social distancing and sanitation guidelines.

“I think what we can do is let (shoppers) know that we’re doing all the proper methods that the CDC has put into place, and the better off we are in following those orders, the less panic that will instill not only in our employees but also in our customers,” Taylor said.

Some companies are deciding on their own max capacity numbers nationwide. Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club are now only allowing in five customers for each 1,000 square feet at any given time, roughly 20 percent of a store’s normal capacity.

Last week, Costco said it was only allowing two people per membership in stores at once, but hadn’t set a capacity allowance.

Target has also set no capacity limit but said on its website it will “actively monitor and, when needed, meter guest traffic in its nearly 1,900 stores nationwide to promote social distancing.”

Rick Brown, president of the Alabama Retail Association, told ADN that some Alabama stores are limiting their capacity further than 50 percent because of each store’s specific needs.

“Such decisions are being made based on customers’ shopping habits, the number of employees on a given shift, the physical space inside their stores and how best to limit contact between customers and employees,” Brown wrote in an emailed statement.

If further restrictions on store capacity continue though, Brown worries that it would worsen the anxiety the public is already feeling because of COVID-19.

“Further mandatory restrictions on occupancy could create unnecessary lines outside of stores and cause panic shopping by Alabama consumers, which would directly conflict with Alabama’s stay-at-home order,” Brown said.

Some companies have also altered their sick-leave protocol, including Wal-Mart, which is allowing up to two weeks of paid sick leave if employees are confirmed to have COVID-19 and possibly more if they are not able to return after two weeks.

Grocery delivery services like the Birmingham-based Shipt are also in high demand right now. Shipt’s website says it is defaulting the option on all deliveries to “leave my order at my door” now to follow proper social distancing guidelines.

Shoppers for Shipt announced Monday there would be a walk-off on Tuesday if safety improvements and demands for better pay were not met, Al.com reported.

Similar demands have been made from shoppers at Instacart and store workers at Amazon-owned Whole Foods last week.