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Last in line: Publix lagged behind competitors in COVID-19 safeguards

Grocers nationwide were slow to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. At most turns, Publix was even slower.
A masked worker collects shopping carts in the parking lot of the Publix store at 5295 34th Street S in St. Petersburg's Bay Pointe Plaza.
A masked worker collects shopping carts in the parking lot of the Publix store at 5295 34th Street S in St. Petersburg's Bay Pointe Plaza. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Apr. 30, 2020
Updated Apr. 30, 2020

Managers at Nature’s Food Patch could sense the “fear and panic" setting in around the second week in March, about the time the coronavirus outbreak was officially declared a pandemic. When employees began asking if they could wear masks, there was no hesitation, a company spokeswoman said.

“In fact, we encouraged it by trying to provide them to all who wanted them,” said Cheryl Rosselle, the marketing director for the independent Clearwater-based grocer.

At Publix, Florida’s popular homegrown grocer took a different approach, waiting weeks to allow employees to wear masks without a doctor’s note. Even by the end of March, the company wrote in employee handouts that reusable cloth masks were not acceptable on the job and that deli workers could not wear masks of any kind.

It would be nearly a month before the Lakeland-based grocer would require its employees to use masks, weeks after state officials shut down bars, beaches and schools to contain the spread of COVID-19. The national supermarket chain Kroger told its employees they could bring their own masks, including those made of cloth, and gloves to work on March 24: Two weeks before Publix told its employees they could do the same.

Many of the nation’s large supermarket chains were slow to adopt measures to safeguard employees and customers as the virus spread and grocery workers were declared essential, along with hospital staff and police. Publix lagged its competitors at almost every turn.

Walmart and Winn-Dixie began checking the temperatures of every worker at the start of each shift by the first week of April. Publix only takes the temperatures of employees who ask.

By then, Walmart, Costco, Kroger, Safeway and Home Depot were limiting the number of customers who could enter their stores at one time, a strategy Publix has declined to adopt. The company did install sneeze guards in front of cashiers, but they are smaller than those shielding cashiers at competitors such as Winn-Dixie. Publix adopted one-way aisles, but after it became the norm at other stores.

When Julian Hartzog went to the UPS Store in Palm Harbor in early April, he was comforted to see employees in masks with only two customers allowed in the shop at a time. He couldn’t understand why the same precautions weren’t being taken at the Publix in the same plaza, especially as Pinellas County had positive cases among the chain’s workers.

Some of the customers wear masks in the Publix store at 525 S Belcher Road in Gulf to Bay Plaza.
Some of the customers wear masks in the Publix store at 525 S Belcher Road in Gulf to Bay Plaza. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

“It’s a matter of life and death for me at 83 years old,” he said. “The impression I got with Publix was: We’re not doing anything we don’t have to.”

He saw employees without masks stock shelves and handle prepared foods. He noticed how close the bagger stood to the cashier, and to himself, and that the plexiglass barriers didn’t cover the conveyer belt or bagging area. He was disturbed enough to write a letter to corporate headquarters and ask a manager why masks were not required.

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“You know, I told the manager, ‘If you want to catch the virus, this is a good place to come,’ " Hartzog said. “He didn’t say anything. He just walked off.”

Publix says it has followed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, which initially discouraged widespread public use of masks. The guidance was meant to ensure that first responders and health care workers had access to them, even as grocery workers logged hours in close contact with crowds.

The CDC is now encouraging everyone to wear masks in public. On April 8, Publix began supplying each worker with a surgical mask, along with directions on how to steam-clean it. A week later, it made masks a mandatory part of every employee’s uniform.

“We have been, and will continue to be, keenly focused on intensive, ongoing protective measures in all our stores,” Publix spokeswoman Maria Brous said.

Related: Publix went from barring cloth face masks to selling them online

***

Publix has had at least nine workers test positive for COVID-19 in the Tampa Bay region, and at least 67 in Florida, based on media reports. All but two of the local cases have been in Pinellas County. One Publix in Dunedin has had two employees test positive.

Public health officials in Broome County, N.Y., announced when a Walmart worker tested positive for the virus at a store outside of Binghamton. They even listed the hours the employee worked. South Dakota officials did the same when Kum & Go and Walmart employees tested positive in Sioux Falls.

The Florida Health Department doesn’t list or confirm retail locations that have had outbreaks, making it impossible to know how many grocery workers have been infected.

“The reason we cannot confirm anything is because we are bound by law,” said Pinellas County Department of Health spokesman Tom Iovino. “We are balancing the need for patient privacy."

Even if Florida released which stores had sick workers, Iovino said, it wouldn’t change his department’s recommendations, which focus on social distancing, frequent hand washing and avoiding crowds.

All of the illnesses involving Publix workers in Florida were made public after employees alerted news outlets. The company confirmed the infections, one of the only local grocery chains to do so.

Nationwide, at least 72 food industry workers, including those at meat plants, have died from the virus, and thousands of others have been infected, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers union. Those numbers don’t include employees from non-union stores, such as Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Publix.

The union has called on grocers to offer hazard pay, which some retailers have done, and requested that shoppers wear face coverings. Along with Kroger, Albertsons and Stop & Shop, the union asked federal and state officials to temporarily designate grocery workers as first responders, so they can better access masks, testing, emergency childcare and other protections, something that has not happened.

While employees routinely rate Publix as a top place to work among grocery stores, some employees told the Tampa Bay Times that their view of the chain has changed because of how slow it moved to implement safety measures.

The Times interviewed more than two dozen Publix employees who described working through the pandemic as confusing, frustrating and stressful.

Employees were interviewed by phone or through email. The Times obtained copies of company instructional handouts that showed how Publix’s policies changed during the last two months.

All but two employees interviewed told the Times that they believed managers were not taking the virus seriously. Nine said employees were mocked if they showed genuine concern regarding the virus. Eight said their managers were initially against masks because they would scare customers, especially at food service counters.

The employees spoke to the Times on condition that they not be identified. Six said managers threatened to fire workers who spoke to reporters about positive cases. The newspaper confirmed they worked for the chain by obtaining copies of employment papers and driver’s licenses.

“Most employees are fed up,” said one worker, an employee of the Dunedin store where two workers have tested positive. “We’re being told if you don’t like your job, good luck finding another.”

Shoppers exit a Publix in Dunedin as an employee gathers shopping carts in the parking lot.
Shoppers exit a Publix in Dunedin as an employee gathers shopping carts in the parking lot. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

When the Times notified Publix of the concerns raised by workers, the company responded with a 500-word statement that it is committed to worker safety, citing eight separate measures the grocer has taken during the pandemic. The steps include a regular disinfectant program and reduced store hours to allow more time for cleaning crews to sanitize.

Eleven employees said their managers were not monitoring the crowds coming into the stores. Two said managers counted shoppers for up to two days, but the practice didn’t continue. Publix has said capacity limits are handled by each store.

“Managers have the ability to limit the number of customers inside our stores in order to help support the social distancing comfort of our customers and associates,” said Brous, the Publix spokeswoman. “Each store location is unique, capacity limits are different and our store managers handle surges throughout the day.”

Related: At least nine Publix employees have COVID-19 in Tampa Bay

One employee said he remembers stocking shelves in those first weeks of March — panic-buying time — and having customers get so close he could smell their breath. Six employees said they were initially told they could not ask customers to step back.

Even some of the employees who are not critical of Publix’s handling of the crisis are worried about their exposure. A woman who started at a St. Petersburg store in the last few weeks said she knew what she was getting into. She took a position at Publix after losing her waitressing job.

During her job interview, she was asked if she was okay working without gloves or masks. She said she didn’t mind, that she would wash her hands and not touch her face. Still, she knew that wouldn’t make her immune.

“I am over 50,” she told the Times. “I have asthma. I’m high-risk. If I get it, I could potentially die. But I have to work. I have to make money.”

Publix installed plexiglass barriers at its pharmacy counters that are about 24 inches by 36 inches, leaving several feet of open space where sick shoppers pick up medications. The same size barriers are installed at checkout lanes.

The shields don’t cover baggers or the area directly behind the payment touch pad. Other grocers such as Winn-Dixie have barriers that are at least 6 inches wider. But the chain’s setup, like most, leave bagging areas open.

Dr. John Sinnott, an infectious disease specialist with Tampa General Hospital, said most grocers installed barriers that are not tall or wide enough to be effective.

Sinnott said large shields not only protect employees from customers, they protect customers from employees who may be asymptomatic carriers.

“When you bring these things up ahead of time, everyone says you’re being alarmist,” Sinnott said. “Once it’s over, everyone wonders why you didn’t do more.”

***

Publix has started to do more.

By April 10, it introduced one-way traffic, with arrows directing customers to snake up one aisle and down the next to discourage face-to-face encounters. Regular announcements encourage patrons to maintain safe distances. At the registers, new printed decals are affixed at 6-foot intervals, the minimum distance public health officials say people should maintain between them to avoid infection.

A recent visit to area Publix stores showed most employees are wearing masks, which became store policy April 20. Brous said as public health guidelines have evolved, so have store policies.

“We are proud of how our dedicated associates are taking care of our customers and each other through this unprecedented and challenging time,” Brous said in a statement. “And, we thank our customers for continuing to trust us with providing them with the goods and services they need.”

Coming soon, in Tampa, the city will help keep retail employees stocked with masks, and customers will be encouraged to wear them when shopping.

It’s part of a deal brokered by Mayor Jane Castor and several major retailers. They include Walgreen’s, CVS Pharmacy, Winn-Dixie, Walmart and Publix.

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