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Coronavirus: Publix’s senior shopping hour has mixed results

The first-day crowds made some shoppers turn away, but things proceeded in a more orderly fashion on Wednesday.

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ST PETERSBURG — Fifteen minutes before Publix’s senior shopping hour, a line of about 100 people over the age of 65 stretched around the Northeast Park Shopping Center.

All Publix stores are dedicating their opening hour, starting at 7 a.m., for seniors on Tuesday and Wednesday. Winn-Dixie stores have designated the 8 a.m. hour for seniors and other customers vulnerable to the spread of coronavirus; however, at 8:45 a.m., the South Tampa store was allowing anyone in.

People at Northeast Park kept about six feet apart as they waited to enter, many wearing masks and gloves. Employees directed shoppers to the end of the line and then stood at the entrance welcoming them once the store opened, keeping everything smooth.

Related: Publix to install plexiglass barriers to protect cashiers

Michelle Weber, a 67-year-old resident of St. Petersburg, stood first in line but by accident. She thought the shopping hour started at 6 a.m. When Weber realized she was early, she figured she might as well stick around.

Weber typically does her shopping on Thursday, but decided to try the senior hour.

“It’s not that I feel safer, I don’t like crowds,” she said. “It’s the panic and I’m like ‘Why are you all panicked?’ It’s been created and we just have to flow with it.”

In addition to Publix and Winn-Dixie, major box stores like Walmart (Tuesday, an hour before open) and Target (Wednesday, the first hour open) are also offering senior hour. At Publix, this initiative has only been in effect for two days.

Webber had a list but wasn’t sure how successful she’d be. Shoppers left the store with loads that varied from stocking up for the week to simply the hard-to-find toilet paper and garbage bags.

Nearly everyone exited with paper products in hand. For some that meant toilet paper and paper towels. For a few, it was two mega packs of TP, each a different brand.

“I only got what I need,” Luis Rodriguez said as he left with one pack of the treasured tissue. “I don’t know what you need all that toilet paper for unless you have a really big butt.”

The 75-year-old St. Petersburg resident said he was born in Cuba and remembers going to the store with his mother and being allotted a half-pound of rice. He feels more people need to be respectful of similar limits and not take more than they need.

Low stocks during Tuesday’s debut of the senior shopping hour frustrated Marcia Gissiner, a 73-year-old from Seminole. She tried two different stores, first figuring there might be more available at a bigger store like the one on Park Boulevard in St. Petersburg. But she found a large crowd and wasn’t comfortable she’d be able to keep her distance.

Customers wait in line before the opening of the Publix store in the Northeast Park Shopping Center, St. Petersburg, Wednesday, March 25, 2020 at 7am. Publix designated Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, 7-8am as senior shopping hours for customers age 65 and over.
Customers wait in line before the opening of the Publix store in the Northeast Park Shopping Center, St. Petersburg, Wednesday, March 25, 2020 at 7am. Publix designated Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, 7-8am as senior shopping hours for customers age 65 and over. [ SCOTT KEELER | TIMES ]

Gissiner next went to the Publix at Eagle Park, her usual store. There she saw an employee wiping down carts as they returned to the corral, which made her feel better, though Gissiner only needed a basket’s worth of items.

She found the hot dog buns for her chili cheese dogs, but couldn’t get eggs. She wasn’t shopping for meat but was still disappointed not to see much there.

“I think the senior hours, it’s a good concept,” said Gissiner, who plans to stick to her Sunday morning grocery trips from now on. “The first day, the execution was just horrid. All the seniors had the same idea: ‘We can finally go get our shopping done.’ You couldn’t keep your distance.”

Chris Koury, a 65-year-old in Zephyrhills felt similarly about the execution on the first day. He also went to two stores on Tuesday. At the Publix at the Shoppes at New Tampa (Bruce B. Downs Boulevard and State Road 56 in Wesley Chapel), Koury didn’t even get out of his car. He found 168 people standing in line, only the first 20 or so separating themselves.

Related: The coronavirus recession is here. Will it linger in Florida?

Koury suggested the senior shopping hours were well-intentioned but might create more problems by bringing those at-risk together without separation.

Later in the day Tuesday, he went to his local store in Zephyrhills, where he found it fully stocked at about 11 a.m. He went back to the senior shopping hour on Wednesday and was pleased to find a more orderly system in place. Many people waited in their cars for the store to open and kept their distance as they proceeded into the store.

Publix said it is monitoring the effort and will make adjustments as needed.

“We opted to provide a senior shopping hour on Tuesdays and Wednesdays to allow our mature customers to shop at their own pace. Customers have shared positive feedback and ideas for suggestions," the statement said.

The elderly shoppers weren’t the only ones showing up early. The Northeast Park employees turned away younger shoppers and an under-65 line started forming by 7:30 a.m.

When that group got into the store, there was some toilet paper left, but the limited supply of chicken had been depleted.

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