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Goodbye to masks?

Vaccinations are picking up speed, but grocers are still looking to public health officials for guidance on COVID safety protocols
A woman putting on an N-95 mask

The In-store grocery experience has been transformed during the pandemic, with retailers spending millions putting measures in place aimed at both limiting the spread of COVID-19 and assuaging customer fears about contracting the disease. Grocers have taken multiple steps to safeguard their stores, from installing Plexiglass shields separating customers and employees, to introducing “deep cleaning” processes and placing floor decals instructing shoppers how they are supposed to move through the aisles and how far apart they should remain from fellow shoppers.

But there has been no more visible—or contentious—manifestation of how significantly brick-and-mortar retail has changed in the past year-and-a-half than the requirement that employees and customers wear masks.

Now, with vaccination rates rising, there is some debate about when Canadian grocery stores might drop the so-called “mask mandate” and perhaps ease up on some of the other safety measures they’ve implemented in the past 18 months or so.

It is already a major topic of discussion in countries including the United Kingdom, where retailers are petitioning government to consider easing some of the restrictions; or the United States, where mask mandates have been dropped following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regarding fully vaccinated citizens.

U.K. grocers have been engaged in talks with the government to end the most significant social distancing rules, specifically the one-metre rule and mandatory mask wearing. According to the British Retail Consortium’s BRC-Sensormatic Footfall Monitor, footfall in British retailers had fallen by 40% compared to pre-pandemic levels, which it attributed, in part, to consumer unease over some of the safety protocols. Tesco, the U.K.'s largest grocery retailer, however, recently said it was in no rush to remove social distancing measures, with CEO Ken Murphy saying customer and staff safety remains a priority. The company has reportedly accrued extra costs of £900 million (about $1.54 billion) through a combination of PPEs, safety screens, closing cafes and hiring additional staff.

Following guidance from the CDC, several major grocery chains in the United States—including Aldi, Costco, CVS, Publix, Sprouts and Target—have already removed mask mandates for people who are fully vaccinated. What’s unclear, however, is just how retailers will determine which shoppers can safely shop mask-free. Costco, for example, said it would not require proof of vaccination, instead asking for its members to demonstrate “responsible and respectful co-operation." But the approach has raised the spectre of store employees, many of whom have already borne the brunt of so much customer anger over mask mandates, now being thrust into yet another unwelcome role: “vaccine police.”

For now, it seems Canada is some distance away from stores beginning to seriously contemplate easing safety measures. As of the time of this writing, less than 10% of the population (8.38%) had been fully vaccinated (compared with about 42% of the U.S. population), although there are estimates that number could reach 90% by as soon as September.

So, it seems as though it will continue to be business as “not-so-normal” for Canadian grocers, with several suggesting they have no immediate plans to loosen rules around mask wearing or ease up on other safety restrictions.

Karen White-Boswell, director of external communications for Sobeys, says the company’s mask guidelines currently remain unchanged, and that customers should expect the Plexiglass barriers it has installed to “stick around for an extended period of time.” She explains, “The health and safety of our customers and our teammates has been our top priority since day
one of this pandemic, and we are in no rush to roll back our protocols without proper public health guidance.”

Daniel Bregg, president of B.C.-based grocer Buy-Low Foods, says the next steps for his company are “still under discussion,” and the company is seeking guidance from WorkSafeBC and the provincial health officer. And Teresa Spinelli, president of the Alberta specialty grocer
Italian Centre Shop, says while her company hasn’t made any decisions on next steps, Plexiglass shields are likely “here to stay,” and the company would follow guidance from public health on masks.

Dr. Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Ottawa, says it’s hard to predict what will happen with masks, but he wouldn’t be surprised to see stores “fully open” (i.e. no mask mandates) by as early as September, although he theorized there might still be restrictions on the number of customers permitted to enter the store.

He says Plexiglass shields offer physical safety for both customers and employees and could be left in place indefinitely (a decision no doubt facilitated by the enormous cost to grocers of installing them), while lingering shopper fears about touching food items such as produce means shoppers might also continue to see produce wrapped or bagged for the foreseeable future.

Sylvain Charlebois, a professor at Dalhousie University, dismisses the “deep cleaning” measures at grocery as unnecessary, and warns it’s ultimately going to be customers who pay for the costs associated with the measures put in place. “We have a better understanding of the risks,” he says. “And the illusion created by staff cleaning everything won’t change the risks consumers are exposed to.”

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer's June/July 2021 issue

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