Alone among the pack, Zehr’s, in Welland, offers customers a hand-washing station. DON RICKERS

Many store workers, however, still shun face masks

For the most part, human decency and common sense have prevailed during the pandemic in Pelham. One need only observe the local grocery shelves brimming with toilet paper as validation. Hoarding, at least for now, seems to have vanished. Meat, fresh produce, canned goods, and most other grocery items appear to be in good supply—with the notable exception of flour.

But what about health and safety precautions, both for customers and store staff? How do our local food stores measure up? Do they encourage social distancing and hand washing? What about limiting customer volume in the store at any one time, and sanitization of self-checkout stations and handles of shopping carts? Are the parking lots littered with discarded face masks and gloves? Are employees wearing facial protection?

Niagara Public Health statistics released late in May revealed that Pelham had the highest rate of historical coronavirus infection among the general public in the entire Region. As of this writing, Pelham’s rate of infection among the general public (not including healthcare facilities) is 16.1 per 10,000 residents. West Lincoln is lowest, with 3.8 general public infections per 10,000 residents.

According to Statista.com, the three largest Canadian food retailers by annual sales are Loblaw Companies Limited ($50 billion), which owns Loblaws, No Frills, and T&T Supermarkets; Empire Co. Ltd ($25 billion), which owns Sobeys, Safeway, IGA, Foodland, and FreshCo; and Metro Inc. ($11 billion) which owns Metro and Food Basics. All three have conspicuously promoted on their corporate websites the adjustments made to ensure their stores are COVID-free.

These modifications generally include reduction of store hours to allow for more staff rest time and additional cleaning, and establishment of a 7 AM early-opening hour specifically for senior customers and those with disabilities.

The number of customers in the store at one time has been limited. Signage is in place to encourage social distancing, checkout lanes have been reduced in number, floor decals have been applied to space customers in lineups, and arrows now direct traffic flow through the aisles. Use of personal shopping bags has been discouraged, hand sanitizer has been made available at store entrances, plexiglass shields have been installed at checkouts, and self-checkout scanners and shopping cart handles are sanitized after every use.

Most corporate food retailers have encouraged the use of shields and masks by their employees, although it appears that this has become more of an option than an edict for staff.

Meredith Maxwell, the Manager of Public Health Communications and Engagement for Niagara Health, said that each local supermarket receives direction for their head office, interpreting and acting on government health policies. Masks and plexiglass barriers are recommended, but not mandatory. Public Health provides guidance and support, but stores which fail to comply with regulations are addressed through municipal bylaw enforcement.

Last week, the Voice did a walk-through of a dozen food stores likely to be frequented by Pelhamites, to check on COVID-19 accommodations. Store websites and Facebook pages were also visited to view what messaging was going out to the public.

The good news is that all the big-three chain grocery stores were implementing safety procedures in accordance with corporate directives. Independent grocers had also made changes, but their efforts were, generally, a bit below the overall standard set by the corporate chains. All stores appeared overtly clean and orderly.

Perhaps the most top-of-mind issue is the wearing of protective masks or shields. Some grocery stores in Ontario have actually implemented policies which require not just employees, but all customers to don facial coverings. Most grocers have left it to the discretion of the individual shopper.

CTV News reported on May 4 that customers at Longo’s, an independent grocery with locations across the GTA, are now required to wear masks or face coverings while shopping in the food stores. In a news release, Anthony Longo, the president and CEO, said, “As a family business, our number one priority is the health and safety of our team members and customers.”

Children under the age of two are exempt from the rule, and masks are available for purchase at the stores.

Speaking to the Canadian Press on May 7, Michael Bryant, the executive director and general counsel for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said stores requiring customers to wear masks is a concern because, “You’re giving store employees a new power that they are exerting over other people to deny them entry.”

Public health officials had not initially recommended the wearing of masks when the pandemic began, but early in May, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, changed her tune. She amended her earlier advice, and urged people to wear non-surgical masks when in situations where physical distancing was difficult to maintain.

Dr. Samantha Hill, president of the Ontario Medical Association, told CTV News on May 23 that masks or shields are not a replacement for physical distancing in public, or hand washing, but wearing one adds an extra layer of confidence.

“Your mask protects me, my mask protects you,” she said.

Even Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the USA, told CNN on May 27 that wearing a mask is a valuable safeguard, and shows respect for other people.

“I want to protect myself and protect others, and want to make it a symbol for people…it’s the kind of thing we should be doing,” said Fauci.

A summary of observations at Niagara grocery providers patronized by Pelhamites follows, in alphabetical order. Also provided is a record of the number of health citations for each grocery in the past twelve months. Bear in mind that these citations can be minor or major in terms of safety risk. Go online at Niagara Health for specific reports of all the stores listed.

Niagara Public Health inspectors conduct regular inspections of businesses in the Niagara region to assess if they comply with all health regulations. These regulations include hand washing and hygiene procedures for employees, disinfection and sterilization of equipment, cleaning and maintaining of counters and surfaces, and food storage, handling, and preparation. Critical infractions are corrected immediately, and follow-up inspections are done as required. No business is given advanced warning of an upcoming inspection.

Big Red Market, Richmond Street, Thorold

The store is open early Monday through Friday, 8 AM-9AM for seniors and at-risk individuals. Cart handles and public surfaces are sanitized. All staff observed wearing masks. Only ten customers permitted to enter at one time, and only one family member at a time. COVID responses are front and centre on their website. Big Red has had two Niagara Health infractions over the past 12 months.

Commisso’s Fresh Foods, Thorold Stone Road, Niagara Falls

Plexiglass hygiene barriers have been installed at all checkouts, as well as additional floor markings and decals to ensure people adhere to social distancing guidelines. Sanitizer is available at the entry door, as are gloves for all customers who want them. Only 30 shoppers are allowed in the store at one time. All staff members wear a mask and gloves. Customers cannot bring their own shopping bags into the store. Commisso’s has been cited twice in the past 12 months for safety non-compliance.

Costco, North Service Road, St. Catharines

Cited once for health non-compliance in the past year. Costco insists that all staff wear facial protection. Standard corporate safety measures are in place. Limited number of shoppers allowed in at a time—resulting in an unusually uncrowded space compared to pre-shutdown times.

Country Corner Market, Quaker Road, Welland

There is nothing on the store’s website about COVID-19 precautions, but there is a mention on their Facebook page. Sanitizer is available at the entry door, and signage encourages social distancing.

None of the staff were observed wearing masks, and Country Corner was the only store visited which did not have a plexiglass barrier at the checkout counter, where the cashier and customer stand less than two metres apart. The store was cited three times in the past 12 months by Niagara Public Health.

Farm Boy, Fourth Avenue, St. Catharines

All staff members don a mask at Farm Boy. Standard corporate safety measures are in place. The store has been cited once in past year for being in non-compliance.

Food Basics, Highway 20, Fonthill

This store had no health citations in the past 12 months. Food Basics limits the number of customers for entry at one time, has sanitized carts, has plexiglass shields in place at the checkouts, and other safety measures. Some staff were observed wearing masks…but not all. An employee told the Voice that masks are provided by the store, but employees can choose not to wear them.

Giant Tiger, Fonthill Shopping Centre, Highway 20

The store manager met customers at the door with hand sanitizer, having wiped down shopping carts. All staff were wearing clear plastic shields. Traffic flow containment, plexiglass barriers at checkouts, appropriate signage…all in place. The store had one health inspection citation in the past year.

Pupo’s Food Market, Maple Ave, Welland

There was nothing on Pupo’s website or Facebook page about COVID precautions. Only one staff member, behind the meat counter, was observed wearing a mask. Plexiglass screens at checkout counters were present, although there were no traffic direction indicators in the aisles.

Signage was displayed suggesting social distancing. Health inspections cited them twice in the past year for non-compliance.

Sobeys, Highway 20, Fonthill

When the Fonthill Sobeys franchisee tested positive for COVID-19 in April, head-office dispatched a team of investigators. The store was sanitized, and new safety directives for staff and customers were communicated. On a visit early last week, the store appeared clean, with cart handles sanitized, plexiglass shields in place at the checkouts, and traffic flow indicators on the floor. The franchisee, Ron Kore, who is also a Pelham Town Councillor, was present, wearing a mask. Many Sobeys employees were not following his example…very few were wearing masks on Tuesday. For whatever reason, by Thursday all employees appeared to be wearing shields or masks. The store had one health inspection citation in the past year.

Sobeys, South Pelham Road, Welland

Standard Sobeys safety precautions were in place. Most staff were not wearing masks. The store received no health citations in past year.

Walmart, Welland

A staffer was observed sanitizing every self-serve checkout after each use, and entry was controlled to limit the number of shoppers in the store at the same time. Plexiglas barriers had been installed at all checkout counters, and traffic arrows and decals were adhered to the floor. Many staff were observed with no facial mask or shield. The store had no health citations for non-compliance in the past 12 months.

Zehr’s, Welland

Some staff were wearing masks, but most were not. Standard corporate precautions were in evidence. Zehr’s was the only grocery visited with a prominently displayed hand-washing station. The store has been cited twice in the past year by health inspectors.

There are few certainties associated with the current pandemic, but we should expect facial protection to be ubiquitous in the foreseeable future. Journalist Olga Khazan, writing in the Atlantic magazine on May 22, quoted a public health non-profit executive who referred to the mask as “the condom of our generation.” The HIV/AIDS epidemic made condoms mainstream years ago, as people became cognizant of the dangers of unprotected sex. Gradually, condoms were grudgingly accepted. It may eventually be true of facial coverings.

As Khazan noted, “We will be wearing things on our faces for a long time. You can choose between a mask and a shield, but you can’t choose ‘nothing.’”