Greater Lansing grocery stores struggle with social distancing 

Ingham Co. Health Officer urges retailers to give customers more space  

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THURSDAY, March 19 — While Michigan’s major grocery stores ramp up safety precautions amid the spread of coronavirus in Greater Lansing, federal guidelines to maintain a proper social distance are being routinely ignored. 

City Pulse sent reporters to several area supermarkets over the last two days. They found dozens of customers fewer than six feet away from each other as they shopped and checked out. 

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cautions people to keep a distance of six feet from others — especially those exhibiting flu-like symptoms — as the coronavirus rises to more than 10,000 cases nationwide, including at least 336 in Michigan (including three deaths) and at least six cases in Ingham County. 

While some stores, like Meijer and Kroger, have signs posted about social distancing, the narrow aisles at grocery stores, like most retailers, can make keeping a six-foot distance more challenging. Checkout lanes were often lined up cart-to-cart. Employees did nothing to separate them. Shoppers often crowded over more popular items. 

Some customers were aware of the need for social distancing and professed to be keeping their distance. 

“I’m always standing six feet apart from anybody now,” Cheryl, a 62-year-old shopper at Kroger, told City Pulse. 

An executive order from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer closed dining rooms at restaurants, bars, coffee shops, clubs, libraries, movie theaters, gyms, casinos and more until at least March 30. And while takeout service is available, only five customers are allowed inside at a time and are required to keep at least six feet apart while they wait. The goal: Significantly reduce the chances that coronavirus will spread by reducing crowds. 

The order, however, doesn’t apply to grocery stores and other big-box retailers — creating the potential for coronavirus to spread rapidly as demand for groceries at stores across Greater Lansing continues to vastly outweigh the supply. 

“We are counting on them to indeed protect themselves, protect their employees, protect their customers,” said Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail. “There is no guidance. There is no mandate. It becomes incumbent on them, at this point in time, to practice those safe measures in those workplaces.” 

“I think what we need to do is put some pressure on the businesses that are still open,” Vail added. “What you need to do is protect your employees as well as the people that are coming into your grocery stores and enforce some of these measures that keep people able to create that social distance between themselves.” 

Customers, for the most part, seemed to avoid clustering together, except for on a few of the busier aisles that housed a limited selection of toilet paper, cleaning products and bread. Many of the longer lines from the onset of the virus seemed to have tapered off. No shopping carts overflowed with food and other long-term supplies.  

Joe, a 26-year-old shopper at a Meijer in Lansing, avoided carts altogether, carrying a case of soda and chips. 

“I’m trying to stock up, but I don’t want to use a cart if they don’t have any wipes,” he told City Pulse. 

Meijer declined to respond to questions about social distancing measures, only encouraging customers “to please practice social distancing” in a statement sent yesterday afternoon. Officials at Kroger didn’t mention social distancing in response to questions about virus precautions, but pointed to added signage in subsequent emails.

Officials at a corporate office for Whole Foods didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Meijer in Dewitt, among other stores, also placed tape on the floor near checkout lanes, separated six feet apart to keep customers apart. Whole Foods in East Lansing has also rearranged its checkout area to help increase the distance between customers that shop at its stores. 

Starting Friday, Meijer will also adjust its hours to provide dedicated shopping hours for senior citizens, customers with health conditions, essential service workers and team members. Only senior citizens and those with chronic health conditions can shop from 7-8 a.m. on Tuesday and Thursday, an hour before others can enter the store. 

Whole Foods also has a special morning hour for seniors from 8-9 a.m.

Vail applauds the effort, but questions the wisdom of gathering the elderly and those vulnerable to coronavirus together in large groups for a specific time. Grocery stores, however, must do their best to remain accessible. 

“It’s kind of a hodgepodge on the best thing to do,” Vail added. “We need our business proprietors to help us.” 

“It becomes incumbent on them, at this point in time, to practice safe measures in those workplaces,” Vail said. 

Lansing Mayor Andy Schor said the Police Department also has “somewhat” of a role in enforcing social distancing, even if measures aren’t required by law outside of carryout restaurants. But the goal isn’t to make arrests, he said. Businesses are also being alerted by the city over evolving, coronavirus-related safety regulations. 

“Some of it is executive order and some is recommendation, but we’re trying to get folks to comply,” Schor said. 

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