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At Michigan groceries, nerves are as thin as some shelves amid coronavirus

As Michiganders hunker down in the coronavirus crisis, the common grocery store has become society’s essential, albeit sometimes anxious, nexus.

For many, it’s the sole remaining link to an outside world that has largely frozen in time since Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued a stay-at-home order that went into effect March 24. 

And the stores can inspire a mix of confusion and fear.

Some shoppers are rightfully cautious. Others are cavalier about social distancing, worrying store workers and their fellow shoppers. Online shoppers encounter depleted inventories and long delivery waits. Michigan’s online grocery store safety inspection database doesn’t work. And a Grand Rapids doctor catapulted onto the national stage with home-grown video tips for grocery safety. 

Safety tips for the grocery store 

The best aggregated advice for shoppers from numerous experts and advocates interviewed for this story for this story: 

  • The obvious — don’t grocery shop if you’re sick, coughing, sneezing, etc

  • Critical: Maintain six feet minimum distance from all other shoppers and store employees.
  • Before you go, have a list, stick to the plan, get in and out of the store
  • Use cleaning wipes (your own or store-provided) to wipe down your cart.
  • One shopper per family. No children. 
  • Touch only fresh produce you intend to buy. If it’s not going in your cart, don’t touch it. 
  • Don’t chit-chat with stockers, cashiers or other shoppers. 
  • Check out, get back to your car, rub your hands with bacterial sanitizer. 
  • Once home, wipe down boxes and plastic containers with disinfecting wipes.
  • If possible, set aside groceries not immediately needed in a garage or on a porch.(Some research suggests the virus can survive several hours or days on surfaces like cardboard boxes.
  • Thoroughly rinse fruit and vegetables in running water but don’t use soap or a disinfectant, which may contain toxins.   

Health uncertainties in restocking shelves

A few weeks ago, Michigan State University infectious disease specialist Dr. Peter Gulick hadn’t yet embraced the notion of grocery shoppers and workers in gloves and masks. He does now. But he urges face coverings other than the N95 masks in critically short supply for health workers.  

And, most importantly, he urges social distancing in grocery aisles and checkout lines. 

“Clerks, when you’re checking out, are in closer contact with customers and are probably at greater risk,” said Gulick, the director of MSU’s Internal Medicine Residency Program. “It’s not like they can move around like a shopper if someone gets too close.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared last week that roughly a quarter of people with COVID-19 don’t exhibit symptoms like coughing and sneezing.

“The people who don’t are the ones we worry about,” Dr. Gulick said. 

Grocery workers’ nerves wear thin

Even Sandy the Penny Pony, the 1-cent ride at the checkout end of Meijer stores since 1962, is furloughed for the duration of the coronavirus crisis, according to the company. 

Back at the cash registers and in the aisles statewide, grocery stores are straining to protect workers wary of uncareful customers. 

Too many shoppers are treating grocery shopping “as a leisure time activity,” said Meegan Holland, vice president of the Michigan Retailers Association, which represents 140 businesses that sell groceries. 

“We need to respect that grocery store workers are on the front lines and could be easily exposed to an asymptomatic customer. We need to respect their health.” 

Presidents of union locals representing more than 40,000 workers at statewide Meijer and Kroger stores agreed. 

“Clerks don’t want to talk to you about the Tigers right now, geez,” said John Cakmakci, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 951 in Grand Rapids which represents Meijer workers. “They’re still happy to help you find the bottle of Tabasco. They just don’t want you standing 2 feet away when you ask.”

Cakmakci and Dan Pedersen, president of UFCW Local 876 in Detroit, which represents most Kroger workers in Michigan, praised grocers large and small for being responsive to workers’ health and safety concerns. Many Michigan grocers are installing “Sneeze Guards” — Plexiglas barriers between cashiers and customers.

“We’ve been advocates for our employees, but I’ve not had any employers say no and most have had a very quick response,” Pedersen said. “These employees are truly first responders, knowing they’ll be exposed to hundreds if not thousands of people.”

Kroger and Meijer each detailed to Bridge efforts to keep stores healthy for customers and employees alike. Both said they’ve intensified cleaning practices in checkout areas, credit card readers, food service counters and elsewhere. They’ve reduced hours to allow restocking and contact with shoppers, and to help employees rest. 

Kroger told employees they can wear their own protective masks and gloves and has asked for government help in obtaining protective gear  once health care workers’ needs are met. Meijer stopped accepting returnable bottles and cans, closed deli and meat counters and asked customers to not use reusable fabric bags.

Delivery frustrations 

State residents determined to stay out of grocery stores are finding long waits for delivery and limited product availability. 

Sterling Heights retiree Margaret Feldus, 74, recently sat outside a local Papa Joe’s grocery store, waiting to pick up an order she’d made online, watching grandparents and grandchildren waltz inside. 

“Have you ever seen a 10-year-old keep their hands off things?” Feldus said, adding she’d “absolutely not” go in a grocery store during the coronavirus crisis. “Not with a 10-foot pole.”

Feldus said she resorted to ordering from Papa Joe’s after encountering items out of stock and delivery dates a week out at larger chains like Meijer and Kroger. 

Like Feldus, Dearborn resident Cathleen Hagan doesn’t want to go inside grocery stores now, but found herself desperate early last week, ventured into a Kroger, but found “no toilet paper, no eggs, lots of empty shelves.” So, she checked Target, CVS, Office Depot and Amazon (next delivery date: May). Thursday, she found what she needed.

“Update: Score!,” she emailed Bridge. “Stopped by the local party store on our way home from biking tonight and got a 9-pack of TP.”

Kroger and Meijer's written statements to Bridge did not address online ordering and delivery issues. On its company blog,, which sends hired shoppers into Michigan stores like Meijer, Target, and CVS, apologizes for long wait times as it works to hire thousands more paid shoppers and collaborates with stores to update inventories for greater accuracy.

Grand Rapids doctor’s videos go viral

When the coronavirus hit, Grand Rapids family doctor Jeffrey Van Wingen’s 16-year-old, Internet-savvy son, Emmanuel, had an idea: Somebody should use social media to tell people how to be safe. 

So, Dad went to work on it.

Less than two weeks later, Dr. Van Wingen’s 13-minute You Tube video, “Grocery Shopping Tips in COVID-19,” filmed in his kitchen, made him a bearded, pony-tailed online wunderdoc.

As of Saturday morning, his first video posted March 24 had nearly 25 million page views in more than 100 countries. It is translated into 10 languages and a woman in Lebanon is working on a sign language version. On Thursday, he got shout outs from CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta and NBC Nightly News’ Lester Holt and a call from a U.S. Department of Agriculture official offering more tips and seeking to collaborate with him. 

Noting that Van Wingen’s grocery video has been more popular on social media than public service announcements from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a Forbes magazine contributor had a theory.

“Perhaps the difference is that Van Wingen is offering advice in a friendly way, while the CDC’s video comes off as something that, well, seems like the CDC or another government agency would produce. It lacks the heart and personal connection.”

For his part, Van Wingen just looks forward to the day Michigan, the nation, and the world get past COVID-19.

“I’m much happier in my little hole, seeing the patients I’ve loved for 20 years,” he said. ““My goal wasn’t to be popular. It was for the information to be popular. I just wanted to give people the tools to be airtight without too much fear when they venture out into the marketplace for food.”

State database no longer works

What if you’re a circumspect shopper and want to quickly check the safety record of your neighborhood grocer? You’re pretty much out of luck.

Until January 2016, consumers could go online and see how some 18,000 statewide grocery stores and other food handling businesses fared in safety inspections conducted by Michigan’s Department of Agriculture Food and Dairy Division.  

Today, to get the same information, a shopper must make a record request and mail or email it to the state. A Bridge editor sent a request last Sunday. Three days later, he got a response from a state Freedom of Information Act coordinator declining the request because he hadn’t shared his name, address and other contact information.

“The reason the database with inspection reports is no longer available is due to some limitations with the current electronic inspection system,” Food and Dairy Division Director Tim Slawinski told Bridge in a written statement. “MDARD recognizes this concern and intends to make this feature available again in the future.”

Food inspectors continue working statewide during the coronavirus crisis to ensure food and store safety. “Therefore, the department’s work continues to help consumers,” Slawinski said. 

In January, a Michigan Auditor General report concluded inspections of grocers, convenience stores, and other food establishments were overdue in a third of the samples checked.

The Michigan Department of Agriculture takes the auditor general’s report seriously, said the agency’s spokesperson, Jennifer Holton. We are a compliance-based department,” she said.


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