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Grocery shopping in F-M undergoes sea change with COVID-19's arrival

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Osgood Hornbacher's store director Pam Seivert places a social distancing guideline decal on the floor by the delicatessen of the south Fargo grocery store on Wednesday, April 15. David Samson / The Forum

FARGO - Grocery shopping is now the 2020 version of the old Pac-Man video game.

You try to pick up all of your food. (Extra bonus powers for fruit!) And avoid bumping into Coronavirus World’s version of ghosts (fellow shoppers and store employees).

In the Osgood Hornbacher’s store Wednesday, April 15, shoppers were testing their Pac-Man-like social distancing skills.

Six feet is suggested. For those that don’t know what six feet is, that’s roughly one hockey stick or a titch more than Brad Pitt’s height.

It's clear that not everyone is adept at keeping a Brad Pitt away from each other.

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Social distancing remains an awkward tango as shoppers stop, reverse direction, or slide by crowded aisles.

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Tatiana Miller arranges a display of baked goods on Wednesday, April 15, at the Osgood Hornbacher's grocery store in south Fargo. David Samson / The Forum

The wardrobe has an addition, too.

All Hornbacher’s employees - and most shoppers - wore masks. There were hospital-style paper masks, homemade cloth masks, even bandanas for those flashing their “Let’s go rob a stagecoach!” panache.

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A hand-washing station has joined the sanitizing wipes by the cart corral, and decals on the floor encourage shoppers to give each other space to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
By the meat counter, Sara Kullander crossed another item off her shopping list.

She works full-time at Target, so “not much has changed for me,” she said.

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“I am not worried personally … but I understand there are vulnerable people,” Kullander said, adding she has cut down on her shopping trips.

Her big concern is the economy.

“Are we taking it too far?” Kullander asked. “How are we going to rebound from it? Can we get back to our normal way of life?

“I value our freedom in this country. I really am hopeful. I want us to be the great country that we are,” Kullander said.

At the cash registers, new Plexiglas shields create a barrier between cashiers and customers for sneezes and coughs.

“It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s trying to avoid the most direct contact,” Hornbacher’s President Matt Leiseth said.

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Instacart shopper Emily Hultin checks out with Holly Allen on Wednesday, April 15, at the Osgood Hornbacher's in south Fargo. David Samson / The Forum

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Near the dairy aisle, Emily Hultin, wearing clear plastic gloves and a cloth mask, checked her smartphone as she gathered an Instacart order.

Hultin appreciates the job “and knowing that I’m helping other people.”

Still, “I think it’s definitely making me more nervous going out. I’m just trying to be careful on what I touch,” Hultin said.

In the produce section, Lucas Potter was also assembling an Instacart order.

Hand sanitizer and hand washing stations got Potter’s freshly sanitized thumbs up.

“That’s something we should have been doing long ago,” Potter said.

Among changes common now are limits on the number of people who can shop in stores at any one time.

For example, the modest Aldi market on 13th Avenue South allows 60 people inside at a time. Meanwhile, the sprawling Walmart superstore on 55th Avenue South allows 900 people in the store at a time, an employee said. A few large stores have also set up ad hoc funneling systems, using carts or shipping pallets to separate people entering and exiting.

Purchase limits remain on products that have taken on a strange grail status. Toilet paper. Cleaning wipes. Hand sanitizer and liquid soap.

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Taylor Marquart stocks cheese products in the cooler on Wednesday, April 15, at the Osgood Hornbacher's in south Fargo. David Samson / The Forum

All these changes came in less than a month, as Americans and American businesses woke to the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic was here, growing silently and exponentially.

For example, Coborn’s, the parent company of the Cash Wise and Hornbacher’s stores, regularly sent out COVID-related press releases that document many of the changes in how we now shop, beginning a month ago:

  • March 11 - In-store food and beverage sampling is suspended; cleaning measures are increased; employees can stay home if sick or exposed to the virus. Employees can wear masks if they wish.

  • March 13 - Home delivery people no longer enter homes. No self-service food areas (salad bars, hot food bars and doughnut cases) in towns with positive virus tests. Product purchase limits begin.

  • March 15 - Shorter store hours are implemented in Minnesota, South Dakota, Wisconsin and western North Dakota. In some stores, full-service meat and deli areas transition to self-service with prepackaged items.

  • March 17 - Store hours are trimmed further in some areas. Seating in coffee shops is closed. At-risk customers are invited to shop early each day.

  • March 25 - Guests are encouraged to use social distancing. Plexiglas shields are being installed at registers and pharmacy counters. Guests who use reusable bags are asked to wash them regularly and bag their own groceries.

  • April 4 - Another hour is added for at-risk shoppers to shop.

  • April 12 - Masks are secured for all employees. Shoppers are encouraged to wear a mask or face covering.

Many store chains, such as Family Fare (a subsidiary of SpartanNash), gave front-line employees a bump in hourly pay and bonuses for working through the early stages of this pandemic. SpartanNash, like other chains, is also monitoring the health of employees as they show up for shifts, including checking temperatures.

Meredith Gremel is vice president of corporate affairs and communications for SpartanNash, which has 155 stores, 18 distribution centers, and distributes grocery products to U.S. commissaries around the world.

“Overall, I think we’ve been so inspired by our front-line workers’ helping people get the goods they need," Gremel said. “Sometimes, it’s the toughest times that bring out the best of us."

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Lana Christman wipes down her checkout station Wednesday, April 15, at the Osgood Hornbacher's grocery store in south Fargo. David Samson / The Forum

Back at Hornbacher’s, many employees wear brightly colored cloth masks made for them by customers. They also wear red T-shirts with the upbeat message: “Together we can get through anything. We just have to do it six feet apart.”

“If I wear a mask, it’s to protect you from me. We need to get into a world where we’re all wearing masks to protect each other,” Leiseth said, noting that many people carrying the virus have no idea that they could be infecting others.

A little distance, masks, and the other measures alter the social aspect of shopping for now, but can break the chain of transmission, Leiseth said.

"That’s going to be a big win for us in the community," he said.

Related Topics: FAMILY FARE
Helmut Schmidt is a reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead's business news team. Readers can reach him by email at hschmidt@forumcomm.com, or by calling (701) 241-5583.
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