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Food Safety Concerns Grow As Grocery, Restaurant Workers Test Positive For COVID-19

Shalina Chatlani
Customers line up outside a Sprouts in Hillcrest, March 30, 2020.

San Diego resident Leslie Padilla said it’s been over a week since she last went grocery shopping. On Monday, she shuffled into a Trader Joe's on the San Diego State University campus.

"Yeah, I’m anxious I haven’t been grocery shopping in like 10 days and now I’m like out of everything," Padilla said. "So, I’m out just trying to keep my distance, as a lot of people are doing. I have been looking for toilet paper for about a month. And pretty soon it's gonna get serious, because I haven't found it anywhere. I think people need to calm down and keep distant."

Meanwhile, other residents like Angela Barley are actively gearing up to go to the store. She used to work at Trader Joe's, so she feels safe going to one.


"I think everywhere makes me a little anxious ... I mean using the gas pump makes me anxious. But as long as we are taking precautions, I’m not super worried," she said.

With a handful of local food supply workers testing positive for the coronavirus, many people are wondering just how safe the food supply is. Workers have also shown concern. The Associated Press reports that "Whole Worker, a workers group for Whole Foods employees, is calling for a nationwide 'sick out' on Wednesday."

But despite the anxiety, stores are still getting packed. That's because food is essential.

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San Diego Grocery Store, Restaurant Workers Testing Positive For COVID-19

County officials said restaurants and grocery stores are following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to sanitize facilities and socially distance customers and staff. Many stores around the country are limiting the number of people who can enter at once. But county health officials said some workers in San Diego had still gotten sick, including one at an Albertsons in Escondido.

County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said in a press conference Sunday that the store closed and followed sanitation protocol.

"And then they reopened, and we do not believe there is any risk to the public in this facility or in other food handling facilities ... There is no evidence to suggest the transmission of COVID-19 associated with food."

But at a Monday press conference, County Chief Medical Officer Nick Yphantides said a follow-up with these businesses is unlikely.

"In terms of us doing something, there has to be something actionable above and beyond that which we've already recommended," he said. "I suspect that as we learn more about this situation, there may be some deliberations that are specific to grocery outlets at a broader global, national context, but very honestly at a local level that has not been discussed."

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In an email to KPBS, Albertsons spokeswoman Melissa Hill said stores are taking additional measures like adding Plexiglas between cashiers and customers.

"As an added precaution in our ongoing efforts to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, we are installing Plexiglas in our checkout lanes in over 2,200-plus stores over the next two weeks. The Plexiglas will serve as a protective barrier between customers and cashiers and provide added reassurance and peace of mind," Hill wrote.

And Sprouts spokeswoman Kalia Pang said Sprouts stores are also installing Plexiglas at checkout counters and increasing cleaning times.

“We are paying attention to high touch surface areas such as counters, restrooms, carts and checkout lanes," she said.

Pang said if a worker does show up sick, he or she would be asked to go home.

"Our stores have definitely been busy with people ... we're proud to share that our team members' jobs are protected during this time of uncertainty," Pang said. She said Sprouts has invested in additional benefits and bonus programs for workers.

"We understand if team members are in a position where they feel vulnerable, we do have a relaxed attendance policy," she said.

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And Heather Buonomo from the San Diego County Department of Environmental Health said officials sent out guidance in early March to local restaurants and grocery stores. She said there are over 15,000 food facilities in the county.

"(At stores and restaurants) the public should expect more social distancing, lines taped off at cash registers or other high volume areas, increased personal making sure people are following social distancing," she said adding that businesses are stepping up disinfection practices.

Buonomo said restaurants and businesses are bound by California retail food code and have to allow sick workers to take leave. Facilities must also ensure food is safe. But she said residents also have a role to play in their own safety.

"My recommendation for all shoppers is if you are sick, stay home. Utilize online delivery options as much as possible," she said.

She also suggests that people wash their hands before and after they go grocery shopping.

Food Safety Concerns Grow As Grocery, Restaurant Workers Test Positive For COVID-19
Listen to this story by Shalina Chatlani.