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11 Investigates: Safe Shopping

8 stores in 6 areas are visited during high-traffic times to see just how safe grocery stores are making their locations, and if shoppers are following the rules.

Brian Dugger

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Just as COVID-19 cases were beginning to grow last month in Lucas County, an email from a grocery store vendor came into the 11 Investigates tip line:

"Picture yourself stocking a shelf in an aisle with 10-20 people in it, mouths uncovered, coughing and sneezing - or even talking. Out spews virus! I think you might understand my concern about becoming the next victim in Lucas County. Mask & Glove Up !! and see for yourself."

He's not alone in his concern. Five grocery store employees in Michigan have died from COVID-19. Several others around the country have died or become infected.

The United Food and Commercial Workers' union reported that 85 percent of its grocery store members said customers are not practicing social distancing in stores.

The orders

On April 2, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine issued new orders for grocery stores - display the max occupancy of the store, enforce that number, wipe down carts and baskets, and maintain 6 feet of distance in lines inside and outside stores. The order went into effect on April 6.

But sparked by the email from the grocery store vendor, I wanted to find out if stores were following those orders. I also wanted to know if customers were doing everything they could do to keep themselves and others in the store safe. 

The test

Our 11 Investigates team visited eight different stores, evaluating stores in six different areas. We went during high-traffic times, when customers would most likely be affected We wanted. 

We evaluated the stores in the following categories: 

1. Was an occupancy sign posted?

2. Were carts and baskets being wiped down?

3. What percentage of customers were wearing masks?

4. What was the maximum number of people in an aisle?

5. Were people keeping 6 feet apart?

6. Were there store announcements about distancing?

We visited the following stores:

  • Wal-Mart, 5821 Central Ave., Toledo
  • Kroger, 27322 Carronade Dr., Perrysburg
  • Kroger, 2555 Glendale Ave., Toledo
  • Meijer, 1391 Conant St., Maumee
  • Meijer, 2111 E. Wooster St., Bowling Green
  • Aldi, 9806 S. Compass Dr., Rossford
  • Target, 9666 Olde, U.S. 20, Perrysburg
  • Dollar Tree, 1040 N. Main St. #3, Bowling Green

The findings

For the most part, stores were doing what the state ordered. But that was not originally the case at the Wal-Mart on Central Avenue.

This was an important store in our evaluation because it is in the 43615 ZIP code, the hardest-hit area in Toledo. In the health department's map posted on April 17, there were 80-100 cases in that ZIP code.

Credit: WTOL
Social distancing was not being practiced at the Walmart store on Central Avenue earlier in April.

When we arrived at the Wal-Mart, there were two entrances open. At the main entrance, customers were directed through a queue and were counted as they entered. However, at a second entrance, customers were freely coming and going without an associate monitoring them. At neither entrance were carts being wiped down, although there were wipes and an empty hand sanitizer dispenser.

There were no in-store announcements being made about social distancing. And the checkout line was crowded, with people being forced to squeeze by customers at the end of the line. A sample of 27 people was observed and seven of them were wearing masks. Multiple families were observed with small children. None of those family members was wearing masks. Some associates were wearing gloves and masks. Others were wearing neither.

I emailed the corporate communications team to get a statement about the observations. He asked for the address of the store and said that all stores are required to monitor both entrances, wash down carts, have in-store announcements, and have decals and stripes in the checkout area to ensure people stay six feet apart.

I returned to the store the next day and all those expectations were now being met. Pictures taken before my email with corporate and after show that stripes were added on the floor to keep customers 6 feet apart. On Monday, Wal-Mart began requiring that all associates wear a face covering.

Credit: WTOL
The Walmart store on Central Avenue now has tape marking off safe distance spots in its checkout lines.

Lucas County Health Commissioner Eric Zgodzinski says the county is making sure stores are in compliance.

"There are some stores out there who may not understand what to do, so we are going back out to those stores to see what they are doing to help them out. I don't think it's that they don't want to do the right thing, it's that they don't know. "

The CDC has recommended that everyone wears a facial covering when outside. It is not required to wear a mask, however, some studies have indicated that as many as 50 percent of the people infected are asymptomatic. Despite having no symptoms, an infected person can pass on an infection. A face covering makes that transmission less likely.

About 40 percent of customers at the eight stores had some type of facial covering. But the number was only a combined 30 percent at the Wal-Mart and a Kroger on Glendale.

"IF you can keep that 6-foot separation, those masks are just going to add to your ability not to spread that virus to somebody else," Zgodzinkski said. "As you get closer, because let's face it, trying to walk by someone, or trying to get a piece of fruit and someone comes up behind you, or they don't see you, whatever it might be, so it's always good to have that covering."

Here are some of the observations from the remaining stores.