grocery stores

JOHN PAUL COONROD

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, grocery store aisles have been crowded, and shelves emptied of basic food items. To avoid the mayhem, some shoppers are turning to smaller markets in more rural areas. That’s giving rural grocery stores a boost.

Courtney Meadows, a cashier at a Kroger in Beckley, W.Va., knows her job carries new risks these days, but she also sees the positive side of life as an essential worker.

"It might sound silly for some, but for me, I'm grateful that I can still get up and go to work," Meadows says. "I'm one of these people ... I probably will go stir-crazy if I had to stay home."

On this broadcast of The National Conversation, an employment lawyer answers your questions about essential workers who are still going to their jobs. We'll also hear about how to stay safe while grocery shopping and get some advice about pets during the pandemic.

Kroger, the largest U.S. grocery chain, has teamed up with the largest U.S. retail and food workers union in urging national and state officials to designate grocery employees as "extended first responders" or "emergency personnel."

The goal is for grocery workers to get a higher priority for COVID-19 testing and access to safety gear like masks and gloves and other protections. Stores have struggled particularly to access a steady supply of masks, which are in shortage. Health workers and other first responders are also desperate to get them.

The vast majority of the country is under lockdown right now. But stay-at-home orders come with a few exceptions — like grocery shopping.

Many of us are still venturing out to stock up on food and toiletries. But what's the safest way to shop during this pandemic? And what should you do once you've brought your haul home?

We asked infectious disease, virology and food safety experts to share their tips about safe grocery shopping — and what you can stop worrying about.

Know the dangers — focus on the people, not the food

From produce clerks to personal shoppers to warehouse stockers, millions of grocery workers across the U.S. are keeping food on the shelves throughout this pandemic for those of us hunkering at home. Their work is essential — needed and valued — and yet, many say they don't feel safe.

Not all Americans can stay home during the pandemic.

Millions of essential workers are showing up for their jobs at warehouses, food processing plants, delivery trucks and grocery checkout lines. Work that is often low-paid, and comes with few protections, is now suddenly much more dangerous.

America has a new appreciation for these workers. Bill Osborn, a dairy clerk at a Giant in La Plata, Md., says he never used to be thanked for his job. Ever.

But now that has changed.

At a time when millions of Americans are losing jobs at restaurants, hotels and airlines because of the coronavirus pandemic, a few large companies are on a hiring spree.

That's because despite mass shutdowns and lockdowns, Americans still need food and medicine. And that means a new hiring push at supermarkets such as Kroger and Albertsons, pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens, convenience and discount stores like Dollar General and 7-Eleven, and retail giants like Amazon and Walmart.

At a Safeway in Washington, D.C., this week, 19-year-old Tala Jordan was having trouble checking items off her shopping list.

Fresh meat: Nope. Milk: Nope. Eggs?

"I got liquid eggs instead," she said. "Had to compromise somehow."

Jordan was shopping for a family of four — her sister, mom and grandmother. And like families across America, they saw others making a rush to buy goods and figured they should stock up as well.

Updated at 3:04 p.m. ET

We've seen pictures of people lining up at grocery stores, Costco and other retailers looking for essential supplies as the coronavirus crisis deepens. Sure, hand sanitizer, spray disinfectant and cleaners are among the most popular items sought out by panicked shoppers. But they're also buying a lot more oat milk and canned goods.

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