Gleaner

Serving Toronto's most liveable communities with the Annex Gleaner and Liberty Gleaner

NEWS: COVID-19 outbreaks at grocers (May 2020)

June 15th, 2020 · No Comments

Loblaws, Metro, Fiesta Farms all affected

By Nicole Stoffman

How is COVID-19 impacting the health and safety of grocery workers and their customers across the Annex? The Gleaner took a closer look.

DUPONT LOBLAWS

Toronto Public Health is actively investigating two clusters of cases of COVID-19 among staff at grocery stores including the Loblaws at Dupont and Christie, said Dr. Vinita Dubey, Associate Medical Officer of Health, in an email to the Gleaner.

There have been “multiple confirmed cases over many weeks,” of employees who have tested positive at the Dupont Loblaws, according to a May 23rd statement from the company. 

“We immediately took a number of steps to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our customers and colleagues, including providing masks and gloves to the team, making temperature checks mandatory before shifts and following the guidance of public health following each confirmed case. The store also significantly reduced the number of customers allowed in at any one time, and proactively sent home many colleagues to self-isolate,” the statement read.

An employee who spoke to the Gleaner, on condition of anonymity, stated there have been 25-30 cases, but Loblaws declined to share exact numbers. 

A Dupont Loblaws employee tested positive on April 17, another on April 29, and a few more on May 2. It was not until May 2 that employees had their temperature checked at the start of each shift, and at no time were masks mandatory for workers or customers, according to information shared on the Dupont Loblaws Facebook page.  

“It was just a case of ‘wash your hands and practice good hygiene’,” said the employee. “But you can’t trust human beings to do the decent thing.” 

All confirmed cases but one came from the day crew who interact with customers, as opposed to the night crew, who restock shelves and prepare online orders, said the employee.

In response to each positive case, and working with Toronto Public Health, the store was sanitized daily, and closed overnight for cleaning, according to statements on the store’s Facebook page. 

However, customers writing on the page complained that social distancing measures were not being enforced, staff was not wearing PPE, and the company was not letting people know when the COVID-19 positive employees had worked, making it impossible for them to know if they had been exposed.

“Once we started having cases three, four and five, I feel that they kind of wanted to turn a blind eye and not accept responsibility for it,” the employee said. “At a time like this, you just want to be honest and upfront with people. People will respect that a lot more.”

On May 11, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which represents 25,000 grocery workers across the province, including at Loblaws, called on the store to close for two weeks to assess the scale of the outbreak. Instead, Loblaws temporarily closed the store to shoppers, providing pickup orders only. Their pharmacy remains open. 

Since then, masks, gloves and temperature checks are mandatory for all staff, and they have only had one case in two weeks, according to the employee, who now feels safe, but says, “it’s also too little, too late… It’s very much been a reaction.”

BLOOR STREET METRO

An employee at the Bloor and Robert St. Metro grocery store tested positive on April 24th. Working with Toronto Public Health, Metro ensured the employee was safe and quarantined, cleaned all surfaces they may have been in contact with and informed all of the store’s employees. The store was deep-cleaned that night, according to a statement from Communications Manager, Stephanie Bonk.

Metro advises, but does not require, everyone to wear masks in store. In early May, all employees were provided a face shield and masks. PPE is now mandatory for employees for whom contact with others within 2 meters is likely because social distancing measures, “have been considered but are not possible,” said Bonk.

Metro publishes a listing of the numbers of all positive employee COVID-19 cases, along with the location details, at the bottom of the FAQ page of their website.. 

FIESTA FARMS

Fiesta Farms blogged on May 20th that their first employee tested positive that day. The employee’s last day of work was May 16th. Fiesta Farms immediately informed public health, interviewed all staff to discover who had contact with the employee, and closed the store for three days so it could be sanitized by a specialized company. 

The employee is recovering very well, at home, according to store managers Tracy Virgona and Kendra Sozinho.

To get ahead of a possible outbreak, all other 149 employees were tested. At the time of writing 60% have come back negative. Employees still waiting for results stayed home, while those who tested negative were part of a small crew stocking shelves for the re-opening on May 23.

Fiesta Farms went beyond Toronto Public Health protocols for plexiglass shields and social distancing markings by providing face shields for employees. On May 13th, they went further and implemented a mandatory mask policy, to the objection of many customers. 

“You’re coming here to shop. It’s a 20-30 minute shop, so just go with the rules the store has put in place,” urges Sozinho. “Think of our health care workers. They’re wearing the full gear for 10-12 hour shifts. So, suck it up and wear a mask. Sorry to be so blunt.”

“The best protection from COVID-19 is to keep two metres (or six feet) from others, wash your hands often and avoid non-essential trips in the community,” says Dubey. 

Toronto Public Health and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) both recommend that grocery store staff and customers wear a face mask, as shopping sometimes makes keeping six feet apart difficult. 

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has said that refusing someone service because they are not masked would be a violation of their rights. However, Dubey confirmed that it is within the purview of private businesses to implement Occupational Health and Safety policies for their workers. 

‘‘Just as we’ve seen different governments around the world enforce policies around mask wearing, it really is up to the employer or government to make it applicable across the province, country or the workplace,” said Joel Thelosen, of the UFCW.

Grocery store employees have suddenly become front line workers during a pandemic involving an insidious virus that spreads asymptomatically. Keeping them safe, therefore, protects the public too, and may be key to flattening the curve, according to a March 19th statement from UCFW President, Wayne Hanley, who called on the province to take stronger measures to protect grocery workers.

READ MORE LOCAL COVID-19 COVERAGE:

Tags: Annex · News