‘Uncharted territory’: Vashon grocery stores weather impact of coronavirus pandemic

Vashon Thriftway and Vashon Market IGA try to keep up inventory, institute more cleaning measures

Monday’s trip to Vashon Thriftway was the first time island resident Robyn Brezinski said she had been out all week.

As she loaded a small cart of groceries into her car on a bright afternoon, Brezinski commented about how she found everything she needed, but still, this outing was different than most.

Describing herself as “a hugger,” Brezinski noted if she had seen people she knew she wouldn’t have embraced them. Her decision was, in large part, due to the encouragement by numerous health and public officials for people to practice “social distancing” in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

On that note, the store’s front end had a bright yellow sign urging customers to “avoid ‘close social contact’” with others “whenever possible.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines that distance as staying approximately six feet away from others during an interaction.

The sign was just one of the recent changes the island’s two grocery stores, Thriftway and Vashon Market IGA, have made in response to COVID-19, which in King County alone has infected 518 and killed 46 as of press time.

On Monday, Vashon Thriftway announced on Facebook it was offering curbside pickup and deliveries for customers. The first deliveries were set to go out March 19.

IGA, which had already been offering curbside pickup and delivery, meanwhile, had doubled its days to offer those services. The store’s manager, Shawn Hoffman, told The Beachcomber that people have really utilized them in light of COVID-19.

But that’s just the beginning as the two grocery store titans on the island respond to what’s been declared by the World Health Organization as a pandemic.

“I haven’t seen this in my eight years of running the store here,” Hoffman said about customers’ activity recently.

“Kind of uncharted territory” is the way Clay Gleb, manager of Vashon Thriftway, described what has been going on at his store in recent weeks.

This past Monday was busy, Gleb, said, as 40 to 50 people were waiting outside Thriftway when it opened.

“Which was more than it had been, so I would say the order to close restaurants and bars maybe even exacerbated the business trends that we’re seeing,” he said.

The measures both stores have taken are, in part, in response to guidelines put out by Public Health – Seattle & King County and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These guidelines, which specifically mention grocery stores, include: having staff and on-site contractor self-screen for coronavirus before coming to the store; washing hands for 20 seconds several times a day, including on arrival at work; encourage no face touching; frequently sanitizing commonly touched surfaces and objects; and considering temporarily reassigning employees with underlying conditions.

Asked about the guidelines, Gleb said many of them had already been implemented at his Thriftway before those agencies released them.

“So it hasn’t been too much of a change in terms of what we’ve been doing,” Gleb said.

Vashon Thriftway has also taken steps that were not recommended, including closing the donut case and olive and salad bars until further notice — something that was announced on Facebook last week. The store is also taking extra measures to keep the store clean, wiping down check stands, the seating table up front and cleaning the bathroom hourly.

“As most businesses are, we’re operating out of an abundance of caution with everything we do, so we felt like limiting the amount of exposure in the areas that are self-serve was the best we could do,” Gleb said. “If we don’t have those utensils and things customers would use to serve themselves in those areas, those are things we wouldn’t need to sanitize anymore.”

A recent Facebook post asked Vashon Thriftway customers to “be patient with us as we try to stock our shelves with the products that we do receive.”

Gleb said the store is seeing “shortage from our suppliers in certain areas,” which makes for emplty shelves, “which we don’t like.”

“But it’s kind of a product of the current environment,” he said.

Customers are not complaining, according to Gleb.

“I know we’ve had lots of positive comments, especially when they’ve seen us do the sanitizing and the cleaning,” he said. “This is a stressful time for everyone, so I think they’re pretty understanding about us balancing everything that we’re trying to juggle right now.”

As far as the new carry out and delivery service, he said plans were being put in place for several weeks, but it was only announced today after the store determined they had allocated enough staff to do it.

“I think that there’s a lot of customers that still want to get products that we sell, but don’t necessarily want to come in the store, so this is an option for them to be able to do it,” Clay said.

Gleb said some of his employees at Vashon Thriftway have asked to take leave — those who have”underlying conditions” and are in the age group that government agencies consider high risk for coronavirus.

The new sign encouraging social distancing seems to be working, Gleb said, even if the distance is hard to keep between a customer and checker.

“I think that if everyone is intentional about [trying to keep distance], it becomes easier,” he said.

Vashon Market IGA owner Shawn Hoffman spoke with the newspaper at length about what his store is doing in response to coronavirus, including sharing the fact that, every morning, managers discuss with employees whether they feel sick; if they are, they will be sent home.

The store is doing well as far as keeping its workforce, he said. On Monday, however, two store employees went home.

“If they did get it, it might have adverse effects,” Hoffman said. “We just want to make sure everybody here is in the low-risk category.”

Employees have been stepping up sanitation measures, Hoffman added, cleaning and sanitizing equipment every few minutes; checkers using hand sanitizer after handling money; and making hand wipes available for people when they walk in the door.

With regards to products, IGA is ordering heavy on hand sanitizer, surface wipes and toilet paper, according to Hoffman. However, IGA’s warehouse is feeling overwhelmed due to demand.

Hoffman said whether the store gets the inventory it wants is “hit or miss.”

“We did not get what we ordered again today,” he said. “The whole supply chain is disrupted, but we just keep trying. We ask for patience and ask customers not to overbuy. They’re real receptive to that one.”

Hoffman said he is not concerned about person-to-person contact being a problem for deliveries because the deliverer stays several feet away from the customer.

“You’re on your computer, we pick it, we use gloves, we bag it, put it in a delivery van, you have contact with one person versus 30 to 40 people you would encounter in a grocery store,” he said.

Providing some general thoughts, IGA owner said grocery stores might see a decline in business after the coronavirus scare passes because people will have bought a lot of items and not need more.

But in the long run, grocery stores will be fine, Hoffman said. He is just more worried about the dining industry.

“I’m concerned that in restaurants, they’ll have the perception that they’ll be more exposed sitting next to people versus walking in a store,” he said.

Those comments were made before Washington and public health officials’ order for restaurants and bars to close to the public, with the exception of carry-out or delivery service.

After that announcement, Hoffman said he would be open to any of the local restaurants setting up a food stand in front of his store during the day if that’s what it takes to keep those places operating.

As far as IGA is concerned, Hoffman is open to changing business strategies in light of the coronavirus response, whether it’s adjusting hours, making other items available or stocking up on medication.

“We’re open to work with the government and whoever else to provide services to the island,” Hoffman said. “We’re part of the community and we want to help out the community anyway we can. We’re just here to do our job.”

Of business in general, he said, “everybody’s in a good mood. We know we’re going to get through this.”

Hoffman said his employees may be under stress due to the higher volume in customers, but “we want to turn this into a good thing.”

“Let’s keep the mood up and keep customers happy,” he said.

At Thriftway, Gleb took an optimistic outlook with regards to how his store will deal with the business impact of COVID-19.

“Everyday’s a little bit different and we’ve learned something new. So I guess we’re all kind of taking this as we go,” he said. “But we will try to provide as many updates as we can.”

This story has been updated to correct a misquote from Vashon Thriftway manager Clay Gleb. He actually said the store is in “uncharted territory” when it comes to the coronavirus’s impact on his store.

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