In response to Gov. Janet Mills' new directives for retail stores across the state to limit the spread of COVID-19, supermarkets, pharmacies and other "essential businesses" in Maine are taking steps to protect their customers and their employees. That has meant physical changes at the check-out and, in some cases, limiting the number of shoppers in the store at any one time.
On a few mornings in recent days, the line outside of Morning Glory Natural Foods in Brunswick has extended down the block, with customers standing roughly six feet apart. At the store's entrance along Maine Street, owner Toby Tarpinian introduces me to the "door concierge," an employee who opens and closes the door to customers, making sure to limit the number inside to just 10.
“We have a rotating staff member that lets one person in for every person that leaves, once we get to that 10, right as we open. And the community has been nothing but understanding and quite cooperative. It's very rare that anyone isn't appreciative and understanding of what we're trying to do.”
The 10-person limit is one of several ways that Morning Glory has restructured its business in order to enforce social distancing. Beginning last week, the store began limiting customer numbers, restricting in-store shopping hours and implementing a curbside grocery pickup system. And, like many other stores, it also has set aside dedicated hours for elderly and immunocompromised customers to shop.
Tarpinian says the changes were needed in the relatively small space, where narrow aisles make it extremely difficult to maintain one's distance.
“It just didn't feel right with what we're talking about, to walk around the store. And even though people were trying to be respectful, it's a 5000 square-foot selling space. And it's almost unavoidable to have people within each others' six feet bubble. And that's when we had to implement some operational changes.”
Other stores are following suit. On Tuesday, Gov. Janet Mills announced that the state was mandating the closure of all non-essential businesses -- such as hair salons and fitness centers. For those deemed essential, such as grocery stores, pharmacies and pet stores, Mills laid out strict recommendations for reducing congestion: including limiting customers in stores over 5000 square feet to 100 at a time and ensuring proper social distancing whenever possible.
“Mark six foot measurements by the cashier stations. And remind customers to stand, remain, six feet apart, at all times. In and outside the store,” Mills said during her announcement.
Meeting those recommendations is requiring some grocers to rethink parts of their operations. Hannaford spokesperson Ericka Dodge says the company has created a social distancing plan, and stores have installed signs and Plexiglass barriers between cashiers and customers. And Dodge says the company is also putting in new practices to limit contact whenever a cashier needs to look at an ID or process a cash transaction.
“All of these additional processes and safeguards have been informed by the CDC. And we're continuing to evolve and improve those practices as circumstances change.”
Dodge says the company is looking into other steps, including limiting customers. And she says that while the company was forced to temporarily halt its "Hannaford To Go" online service due to overwhelming demand, it is working to resume it "as soon as possible."
A spokesperson for Shaw's didn't comment on whether the supermarket chain would limit customers, but did note the store's delivery and pickup options and said the the company is also installing Plexiglass barriers at the checkout to "provide added reassurance and peace of mind."
But for smaller chains like Food City, which operates five stores located mostly in central Maine, some of the governor's recommendations have been more of a challenge. District Manager Jerry Favreau says his stores don't have the technological capabilities to handle online orders. And he says while the chain has installed Plexiglass barriers and put up signs and markers encouraging customers to spread out, the message can be difficult to enforce.
"A lot of the people like to talk to people they're seeing in the store. So we see groups of people in the store, just talking. And all we can do is just remind them and put up the signing, and that's about it."
In the face of those challenges, some smaller grocers have reduced their hours or eliminated in-store purchases altogether. Belfast Food Co-op General Manager Doug Johnson says his market is considering several options, including further reduction of hours and expansion of a new online curbside pick-up service, but will continue in-store shopping for now.
“The morale of the downtown, the morale of this community, would be really damaged if the co-op had to close its doors. So I think whatever we can do to try to keep the store open, if it's in some odd, pieced-together way, that has to be where our focus is.”
But while stores across Maine attempt to distance customers and employees, Mills says the burden can't fall solely on businesses. On Tuesday, she urged Maine residents to use common sense practices when going to the store: make a list, call for curbside delivery if you can, and go out only for essentials.