Grocery stores increase hygiene efforts

Sanitizing, ‘distancing’ in effect

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Customers crowd the entrance to Costco in Gilroy shortly after the store opened March 16. Photo: Erik Chalhoub

Santa Clara County’s ban on large gatherings, as well its order to close all “non-essential” businesses for at least three weeks, does not apply to grocery stores. However, those involved in the food industry, from growers to markets, have found it necessary to respond to the increasing concern over COVID-19.

According to the March 16 order by Santa Clara County Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody, grocery stores, including those that also sell “non-grocery” items, are considered an “essential business” and are “strongly encouraged to remain open.”

Christopher Ranch, being the largest employer in the South County with 1,000 employees, is looking to signal to others to take the hygienic steps that may have been seen as drastic in the past, said executive vice president Ken Christopher.

The ranch is “ramping up” by adding additional hand sanitizing stations for employees, he said. In addition, Christopher Ranch will provide a paid 14-day quarantine period should any employee test positive for the virus.

“We want to make sure they know to look after themselves and their families, and they don’t have to worry about that next check,” Christopher said.

With the garlic harvest about 12 weeks away, Christopher Ranch and its growers are grappling with another impact from the coronavirus: possible garlic shortages.

China supplies a vast majority of the world’s garlic. But because the coronavirus originated in the country, some countries refused to import Chinese garlic, Christopher said. Factories in China, which typically close around Lunar New Year, reopened later than usual due to coronavirus concerns, which further complicated matters.

Garlic is often seen as a wonder food that helps fight illness, causing consumption to go “through the roof,” especially in China, Christopher said.

“There’s a finite pool of garlic, and everybody’s scrambling for it,” he said. “It’s all about measuring supply and demand right now.”

The Gilroy Farmers Market, which runs every Saturday at Luigi Aprea Elementary School, is in limbo.

T&C Farmers Markets Executive Director Sal Ascencio said that while the city has allowed the market to operate, Gilroy Unified School District has not yet given direction. For now, the market will be closed.

According to the Santa Clara County Public Health Department, the county’s ban on large gatherings does not apply to farmers markets, as those are considered a “grocery store.” The county is requiring markets to cancel entertainment and limit seating areas, among other things.

“Farmers markets are low-risk,” Ascencio said. “No long, crowded lines. No shopping carts, counters, doors, to touch, and spread virus. Open air ‘ventilation’ reduces risk of spreading virus. Finally, fresh produce promotes a strong immunity system against the virus.”

Gilroy’s large grocery stores have announced efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus.

In a statement, Walmart officials said its stores are “cleaned daily, which includes using sanitizing solutions in high-touch, high-traffic areas.”

Employees who test positive for COVID-19 will receive up to two weeks of pay, or possibly longer, the statement read. Walmart is also waiving its attendance policy through the end of April for employees who are “unable to work or are uncomfortable at work.”

Walmart’s Gilroy store has reduced its typical 24-hour operation to 6am to 11pm daily.

Raley’s, which operates Nob Hill Foods, announced that it is sanitizing its “frequently touched hard surfaces every two hours.” Sanitizing wipes are available at the store’s entrance, and hand sanitizer stations are offered in food service departments and each checkstand, “as long as supplies are available,” Raley’s officials said.

In a statement to the Gilroy Dispatch, a spokesperson for Costco said the company is not staffed to respond to the numerous media requests it has received regarding its COVID-19 response.

“As always, our focus is to have merchandise available for our members at low warehouse prices,” the statement read.