The Most Dangerous Place In Grocery Stores Isn't Where You Think

When you think of who is on the front lines in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, health care workers might come to mind first. But grocery store workers, especially those running cash registers, come in close contact with hundreds of people every day and are counted among the "heroes" during this crisis because they make sure people are supplied with food and other basic needs (via The New York Times).

Grocery store employees at the checkout lines may not be treating sick people like hospital staff do, but their job clearly involves risk and turns out to be the most dangerous place to be in the store during the pandemic (via CNN). Reports in mid-April indicated about 30 grocery-store employees had died after contracting COVID-19 (via Business Insider). The latest number, reported April 28 by Supermarket News, is 72 deaths of workers in "grocery, retail, pharmacy, meatpacking and other essential industries" represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers International (UFCW) union. One UFCW local reported that 27 percent of its members who were sickened by COVID-19 were cashiers, CNN said.

Workers at the grocer's checkout are at high risk for infection because they cannot maintain six-foot separation from customers, as recommended in the Centers for Disease Control's social-distancing guidelines. Cashiers also touch every item being purchased — items that also have been touched by shoppers and other employees. The CDC says the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 may spread through contact with objects, but the agency believes transmission is usually directly person-to-person.

What you can do to shop safely for groceries

Stores have installed Plexiglas barriers to separate cashiers and customers, and added markings to floors to show shoppers how to maintain six feet of separation. They've reduced hours to allow time for disinfecting, and some stores are limiting the number of customers allowed in at one time. But labor advocates and health experts say the actions taken so far haven't been enough to protect workers, according to the CNN report. They say stores should require customers to wear simple cloth masks — something the CDC has recommended to the public in situations where the six-foot rule can't be maintained.

Here's how to keep yourself and the heroes working checkout safe while grocery shopping (via Vox): Wear a mask. Shop no more than once a week or even once every two weeks. Shop alone. You definitely want to leave young children at home, if possible, given their fondness for touching everything. Reusable bags are okay, as long as you wash them or wipe them down after each use. While customers usually can avoid interactions with cashiers in the self-checkout area, they often require up-close assistance from employees. Customers at self-checkout also must touch a screen used by other customers, which leads to perhaps the No. 1 recommendation for safe grocery shopping: After you get home, wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.