What Retailers Should Know About PPE, Sanitation and COVID-19

Gina Acosta
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What Retailers Should Know About PPE, Sanitation and COVID-19
While some retailers have challenges enforcing mask mandates, some consumers, like this shopper at a Publix store in Florida, have embraced with enthusiasm PPE such as face shields.

If 2020 was the year of masking and sanitation, then 2021 is promising to be the year of double-masking and double-sanitation.

Despite large-scale optimism that the availability of vaccines will end or at least greatly curtail the pandemic, many retailers and suppliers say that the need for personal protective equipment (PPE) and sanitation protocols hasn’t diminished, and is, in fact, more critical now than in 2020.

“With the newly discovered ‘variant’ strains of COVID-19, as well as the expanding ‘COVID-19 fatigue,’ it is more important than ever to continually reinforce the policies and procedures that have been established for operating under COVID-19 protocols,” asserts Michael Stigers, CEO of Eden Prairie, Minn.-based Cub Foods. “All of the learned protocols and practices will be in place for the foreseeable future. This is a multiyear, if not a multigenerational, experience.”

Stigers may be right about that “multigenerational experience.”

While the United States has been vaccinating nearly 1 million people a day, new, more contagious strains of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 have led to more global surges in cases. In late January, one of the vaccine makers, Moderna, said that it was “not sure” whether its vaccine would be able to fight off all of the new strains, and revealed that it would test an additional booster dose of its vaccine (which would now require three shots instead of two) to strengthen the immune response against emerging strains, especially the South Africa variant. 

Shortly before that development, Europe, which has been a pandemic harbinger, began to tighten PPE and sanitation regulations in public spaces, workplaces and retail stores, in the hope of slowing the spread of the new strains.

Germany has made it mandatory for people riding public transit or shopping in supermarkets to wear medical-style masks, either N95 respirators or surgical masks. France is discouraging the use of cloth and homemade masks, arguing that they may not offer sufficient protection against the more highly transmissible coronavirus variants. In the United States, White House adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci is now recommending that Americans upgrade their PPE game by double-masking.

When Amazon opened its Fresh grocery store, in Woodland Hills, Calif., signs instructed shoppers to social distance, wash their hands, and keep their coughs and sneezes to themselves.

“If you have a physical covering with one layer, you put another layer on; it just makes common sense that it likely would be more effective,” Fauci told the “Today” show. “That’s the reason why you see people either double-masking or doing a version of an N95.”

According to Fauci, wearing a surgical mask underneath a cloth mask provides maximum protection because the surgical mask acts as a filter and the cloth adds an additional layer and helps with fit. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has not yet recommended double-masking in the United States, the practice is becoming more popular among American consumers, meaning that shoppers will come to expect grocery employees to double-mask also.

This is just one way that the PPE and sanitation standards are changing rapidly in the grocery channel. Another area of concern for retailers is surfaces. While the CDC said in November that contaminated surfaces aren’t the main way that the virus spreads, retail store surfaces remain favorable environments for transmission. Crucially, metallic surfaces can retain live viruses for longer than those of other materials.

Retailers will need to stay ahead of what’s next in the crisis by taking ever more innovative approaches to address these challenges, especially if the new, more contagious variants of the virus become the dominant strains infecting Americans. 

Problems With PPE

Since the COVID-19 crisis hit last March, Walmart has been spending $4.3 million a day on PPE and other COVID safety measures, according to the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer’s third-quarter earnings report. Providence, R.I.-based United Natural Foods Inc. has spent $20 million over the past year on signing, plexiglass and other safety measures, according to its financial disclosures. Now these costs are poised to increase even more, as the bar for PPE gets higher. Yet retailers must rise to the occasion even as they face uncertain demand from consumers. Examples of best-practice COVID PPE in food retail in 2021 should include N95 respirators, double masks, plastic face shields, latex gloves and full body suits, as well as head, eye and foot protection, plexiglass partitions, and hand-sanitizing stations. 

Putting a sign in restrooms that encourages shoppers to wash their hands for a specific period of time and with warm water is one way to stop germs from spreading.

“Accessible hand sanitizer is extremely important,” affirms Chris Barreca, director of national accounts at Maryland Heights, Mo.-based Buckeye International, a leading manufacturer of cleaning chemicals for retailers. “It is critical to choose a hand sanitizer that is liked by employees, gentle on the hands, keeps hands hydrated and leaves no sticky residue. The more employees like a hand sanitizer, the more they will use it, and the safer everyone will be.”

At Cub Foods, Stigers says that his employees have been issued personal hand-sanitizer containers with refill capabilities, and new enhanced face masks. Additional screening for temperature checks and updated questionnaires to support new government guidelines have also been implemented. For a retailer, showing that you use PPE and sanitize frequently is more important than ever, Barreca advises. Customers want to know they’re as safe as possible while shopping.  

“Face masks are available for customers who need one, and ‘sanitizing stations’ have been placed throughout the store in all high-traffic areas that include hand sanitizer, wipes, gloves and paper towels,” Stigers observes.

Shoppers and employees both expect strict PPE protocols from retailers in 2021. Implementing these protocols is only one element in a retailer’s 2021 COVID safety toolkit, however. The other element is making sure that the rules are followed. And that all starts with the right communication program, according to Stigers.

“At Cub, communication with customers begins with media advertising on TV, radio and social media,” he continues. “In-store communication, with planned audio messaging and video messaging on in-store screens, highlights the additional efforts being implemented to provide as safe an environment as possible. Noncompliant customers are offered a face mask or a simple reminder of their responsibility to be in the store. If continued noncompliance is a factor, customers are invited to leave the store.”

Another way that retailers can ensure employees and customers are following PPE rules and maintaining a safer in-store environment is through detection systems. For example, tech firm SenSource has launched a face-mask detection system that uses smart sensors to detect the absence or presence of a face covering. The sensors communicate data to a customer-facing smart TV or tablet to display a green “enter” sign or a red “mask required” sign. It automates the task of monitoring mask wearers, eliminating the need for a staff member at the entrance and avoiding potentially uncomfortable encounters.

The importance of properly wearing face masks will continue to be a high-priority focus says Andy Clutter, marketing director at Youngstown, Ohio-based SenSource. “A system to help detect proper mask wearing can alleviate stress on employees. Industry leaders are stepping up and finding innovative ways to simplify protocols.” 

Face-mask detection is part of SenSource’s SafeSpace COVID-19 solutions suite, which includes an occupancy-monitoring program that helps stores keep tabs on occupancy in real time. The same sensor can count customers for occupancy metrics as well as detect face masks.

As unfortunate and devastating as this pandemic has been, we do not foresee an end to mask wearing and social distancing in the near future,” Clutter added. “Our outlook and recommendation is for retailers to embrace it and find ways to ease the burden on shoppers and employees alike.”

A New Normal for Sanitation

Last year saw food retailers scrambling to redefine and enhance their sanitation procedures amid the COVID-19 storm. Cleaning shopping carts and high-touch areas went beyond just safety, becoming a central component of retailers’ value propositions and brands.

Walmart began requiring customers to wear masks at all Walmart and Sam's Club stores on July 20, 2020, with employees stationed at entrances to enforce policy.

According to Cub Foods’ Stigers, the cleaning stakes are even higher in 2021, with shoppers stressed out about mutant COVID strains, air filled with virus droplets, and vaccines that may not work. For Stigers, retail sanitation in 2021 has to start with store leadership: tasking each leader with fighting against pandemic fatigue and keeping safety protocols on the front burner. Many retailers are leveraging EPA-registered cleaning and disinfecting products, UV lights that disinfect, and specialty air filters that remove contaminants. Relying on experts for guidance is also critical, according to Chris Wright, VP of sales at San Diego-based Brain Corp, which makes software for robotic floor scrubbers.

“The retail industry is tracking for sanitation guidelines from groups like ISSA, GBAC and CDC that continue to refine and recommend best practices,” Wright says. “We’re seeing industry leaders follow and enforce these guidelines across stores, rather than allowing for independent decision-making, which is for the best.”

Other best practices include enhanced sanitation schedules for all high-touch areas of the store, enhanced sanitation for all restrooms and associate break areas, and enhanced checkout cleaning between every customer, with cleaning of all PIN pads and high-touch areas.  

“At Cub Foods, microbial checkstand belts have been installed in all intake and takeaway belts, greatly improving productivity and customer acceptance,” Stigers notes. “Store huddles are held daily with COVID-19 protocols leading the agenda.” He adds that his team is studying new “cart cleaners.” 

Cub and other grocers are also embracing robotics with open arms to help solve sanitation challenges related to COVID-19.

“Retailers have turned towards antimicrobial surfaces, electrostatic sprayers for disinfection, shopping cart-cleaning machines and autonomous floor scrubbers to sanitize effectively,” says Barreca, of Buckeye. “Whether or not the use of these innovations persists over time is still to be determined, but the odds are good.”

Ahold Delhaize USA seems to think the odds are better than good. Earlier this year, the company’s services arm, Retail Business Services (RBS), launched a pilot of UV disinfection robots from Cambridge, Mass.-based Ava Robotics in two of its distribution centers to aid in enhanced cleaning procedures.

“2020 was an unprecedented year for grocery retail,” observes Chris Lewis, EVP of supply chain for Quincy, Mass.-based RBS. “The robots have enabled us to further enhance disinfection procedures at two sites to protect our greatest asset — our people. We were pleased to be the first in the industry to support the testing of this technology.”

Ava’s robot disinfects both air and surfaces at a rate of about 9,000 square feet per hour, with 99% effectiveness against COVID-19. It also allows for remote access and provides emailed reporting for managers.

When asked about plans to introduce the robot at additional company facilities and divisions, an RBS spokeswoman told Progressive Grocer: “The team continues to evaluate the technology at this time. No decisions about further rollout have been made yet.”

One thing that needs no evaluation: Retailers won’t be able to ease up on their PPE and sanitation protocols anytime soon, and in fact, these factors are more poised than ever to impact a retailer’s reputation, customer loyalty and profitability, Stigers points out.

“Retailers that are consistent and aggressive with their PPE and sanitation practices with collaborative enforcement programs are observed as a ‘safe’ place to shop,” he says. “Those stores that are inconsistent and not executing posted policies and practices are observed as ‘non-safe’ or ‘not serious’ about COVID-19 protection. You cannot simply tell a good story without good follow-through.”