The real reason grocery stores might ban customers

Nonessential businesses are closed in most states, and 97 percent of U.S. residents are under orders to stay home as much as possible to limit the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 (via CNN). Everyone agrees that grocery stores are highly essential, and they have remained open during the pandemic, but some people involved in the grocery business are saying that stores should close their doors to the public (via CNN).

The call to keep customers out, and limit grocery shopping to pickup or delivery only, comes after a large grocery-worker union reported that at least 30 grocery-store employees have died of COVID-19, and thousands more may have fallen ill from the disease (via USA Today). The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) surveyed its members and learned that customers aren't practicing social distancing. When asked how to improve safety, UFCW members said the number of shoppers in the store at any one time should be limited.

Grocery stores might not have the option to close to customers

Some stores have already put limits on customer traffic, and some cities and states require people to wear face masks inside stores. But limiting grocery stores to pickup and delivery, much like restaurants are now, would further protect grocery workers, experts say. "Anything that reduces the need for interaction with the public and allows for greater physical distancing will ultimately better protect grocery workers. Shuttering stores and repurposing them for pickup and delivery only would be a positive step," a professor of Labor and Employment Studies told CNN.

While a handful of stores have already converted to pickup and delivery only, that's not a realistic option for many grocers, the CNN report said. That arrangement would require more employees and create additional expense for store owners, who already operate on thin profit margins. Besides, stores' capacity to provide delivery through online orders is already strained.

How to keep yourself and workers safe while grocery shopping

Grocery stores probably do need to keep their doors open if they are going to continue to provide the essentials, from fresh vegetables to the suddenly popular toilet paper. The whole system simply isn't ready to go online-only, according to Seth Harris, a deputy secretary of labor under President Barack Obama. "We have no choice. They have to stay open," he said. According to a Trader Joe's representative, these "systems are not set up in a way that would allow us to be able to offer these services, and at the same time maintain our commitment to offering value to our customers."

That said, if you must do your grocery shopping in person, LiveScience provides some recommendations. They include making fewer trips and shopping during off-peak hours, not bringing the whole family if you can help it, touching only those items you intend to buy, wearing a mask (gloves aren't necessary), and washing your hands as soon as you get home. Lastly, if you do use reusable bags for your shopping trip, be sure to wash them properly.