Bloomberg Law
April 10, 2020, 5:00 PM

Retail Workers Told to Stay Apart, Stay Clean in New Guidance

Bruce Rolfsen
Bruce Rolfsen

Faced with increasing concerns about protecting grocery and retail store workers and customers from coronavirus infections, federal and state agencies this week began campaigns reminding employers of the precautions they should take.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Washington state’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health issued their guidance as stores try to balance worker and public health needs while remaining open as an essential service.

The regulators are encouraging store managers to listen to workers’ concerns and are reminding supervisors that it’s against the law to punish or threaten a worker for raising safety and health concerns.

Workers also should be allowed to wear protective masks, the agencies say. In some cases, workers and customers are required to cover their faces before they can enter the establishment. The mandates began this week in New Jersey and several cities, including Los Angeles, San Diego, Miami, and Washington, D.C.

Many store chains, such as Giant LLC in Maryland, Target Corp., and Walmart Inc. are providing protective gear and encouraging workers to wear them.

Several other groups also are offering advice on grocery store precautions, including the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, FMI: Food Industry Association, and the National Grocers Association.

Space + Cleanliness = Health

Store workers and customers can be protected from coronavirus infections by taking obvious measures such as frequent handwashing, and some less-heralded precautions, such as banning the use of reusable grocery bags, according to the new government guidance.

The Washington guidance calls for constant reminders to staff and shoppers on the need to stay apart and stay clean.

The first notice to customers should be hand-sanitizing dispensers at entrances, the state said. Stores also should post large “attention-grabbing” signs readable from a far distance informing customers of the need to stay at least six feet apart. OSHA suggests stores set up curbside pickup programs or, where practical, drive-through windows.

To encourage social distancing inside a store, employers should limit the number of customers at any one time, Washington says.

The state guidance doesn’t specify a limit. Walmart is limiting customers to five for every 1,000 square feet, reducing capacity by about 20%. Target’s customer limits vary by store. Starting Thursday, Giant began restricting the number of people allowed in stores to 20 percent of their capacity and reduce crowding in aisles by making the rows one way.

Washington said stores can minimize workers’ contact with customers by scheduling as much stocking and deep cleaning as possible during closing hours. If the store is a 24-hour operation, shelves should be restocked during the slowest period of the night.

The state and OSHA also recommend that hand-sanitizer stations should be available throughout the businesses. Self-serve food bars and free sample stands should be closed, the Washington agency said.

Condition of Your Checkout

The agencies have several recommendations for checkout lanes, starting with putting markers on the floor to indicate where shoppers should stand six feet apart.

Retailers should consider closing self-check stands if all surfaces can’t be sanitized after each customer uses the stand, Washington state said.

For manned checkout lanes, installing sneeze shields between clerks and customers is an option. Stores could also relocate card payment key pads farther away from clerks and provide disposable wipes or hand-sanitizers for employees and customers to use.

If checkout lanes are too close, use every other lane, OSHA said. Washington’s agency said stores also should prohibit reusable shopping bags and provide single-use bags for groceries because reusable bags may not be clean and could expose baggers to the virus.

At least five other states, including New York and Massachusetts, have made temporary changes to state requirements to encourage bagging groceries in single-use bags, according to the Retail Leaders Industry Association.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bruce Rolfsen in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at; John Lauinger at