As the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has had more time to study COVID-19, it recognized that the virus spreads less commonly through contact with contaminated surfaces, but can be spread by airborne transmission. In fact, the virus can linger in small droplets and particles in the air for anywhere from minutes to hours.
After the pandemic began last spring, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), an Atlanta-based global professional society that studies heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration, formed an epidemic task force to provide guidance on building safety. Luke Leung, part of the retail team for the task force, tells Progressive Grocer that he has good news to share with retailers on that front.
“When ASHRAE first came out with recommendations, we suggested retailers increase the amount of outside air,” Leung notes. “Now we are telling them to provide clean air, and that clean air can be provided by using MERV 13 filters in your HVAC system, which don’t cost much more than MERV 8 or MERV 5 filters. So now you can have your cake and eat it, too.”
At least one retailer has already picked up on the tip. Arlington, Va.-based Lidl US said last October that it planned to install air filtration systems rated MERV 13 or higher in all of its stores by the end of 2020.
The task force also suggests that retailers maintain a 40% to 60% relative humidity level in their stores to minimize mold growth or other kinds of microbials. “This is healthy for both humans and food,” Leung observes.
He additionally recommends that retailers continuously run their units to maintain continuous filtration of the air. Meanwhile, the airflow pattern of the store needs to be considered. Retailers should think about the placement of the supply and return diffusers to create an optimally safe airflow pattern. They should also make sure the velocity of air movement isn’t too high, Leung suggests.
To help businesses, the epidemic task force has released “Core Recommendations for Reducing Airborne Infectious Aerosol Exposure,” which is available on the ASHRAE website in a downloadable .pdf format. The society is also considering how to put its “lessons learned” into new standards, according to Leung.
At ASHRAE, clean air isn’t seen as just a COVID issue, he emphasizes. “Rather than just thinking of COVID, we can focus on some of the bigger threats to the future,” Leung explains. “Depending on where you are located, you could have impacts from climate change – like what happened with the wildfires in California. Then, of course, COVID brings in the dimension of infectious diseases in general, which is something to think about, especially if you have elderly citizens shopping in your stores.” He points out that by 2070, it’s expected that about 28% of the U.S. population will be age 60 or older.
Looking toward the future, Leung encourages retailers to consider ways to incorporate more outside air in their store development, particularly in areas where pollution isn’t a major factor. This is not only healthier, but also more conducive to a more pleasurable – and possibly more lucrative – shopping experience, he notes. For instance, why not expand your produce section into an outdoor farmers’ market? Or consider putting some restaurant seating outside, next to a water fountain feature.
“Consumers feel happy in this type of environment,” Leung asserts. “There’s actually science behind it.”