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Why You Don’t See Face Masks on Many Grocery Workers

A N95 respirator, which is in seriously high demand right nowEXPAND
A N95 respirator, which is in seriously high demand right now
Banej / WikiCommons

I had to go to the store last week to get more ground beef to make a second round of Garden Café's meatloaf.

COVID may have stopped time for some of us, but I have a buddy who needs back surgery so badly that his surgeon won’t put it off, and my neighbors are an emergency room doctor and an infectious disease specialist; so they basically work 100 hours a week right now. I was raised to express sympathy through covered-dish suppers.

Going to the store means donning my N95 mask. Yes, I have N95s. No, I wasn’t hoarding them: In the last six months, I’ve had work assignments in two of the five-most polluted cities on earth. I bought my masks before COVID. I am a mask hipster.

Anyway, I now only have a couple for Kingston household use because I gave the other several dozen to the aforementioned ER doc, and I thought about him after I got out of the store because he wears one for hours on end, and 20 minutes in one annoyed me to a degree that genuinely surprised me.

“You get used to it,” he texted back.

I think I’ll just stay in the house.

What going to the store looks like these days.
What going to the store looks like these days.
Philip Kingston

The federal government’s handling of masks during the pandemic is a microcosm of its larger abject failure. At the end of February, Public Health Dress-Up Clown Jerome Adams pleaded with the public to stop buying masks. Then he honked his red nose and rode off on a tiny bicycle.

Now the surgeon general is posting YouTube videos teaching you to make an ersatz mask at home because it’s suddenly critical to stopping the spread, and neither he nor anyone else in the government managed to secure enough real masks for medical professionals, much less for you and me. I’m ready to fire this guy out of a cannon.

The other thing I learned from my trip to the grocery store (other than I now fear grocery stores) is that grocery workers are not consistently using masks or gloves. This would seem to present some danger in an environment where aisles are too narrow to practice distancing.

“With the short supply of masks, it’s hard to make it mandatory, but we are doing our best to strongly encourage it and role model it with our leadership team. We are encouraging homemade masks as well,” wrote Mabrie Jackson, director of public relations for Central Market.

Central Market’s parent company H-E-B has been widely lauded for its excellent COVID-19 response and communications. Yes, a regional grocery chain has provided better pandemic response and advice than the federal government.

But no amount of planning could overcome a nationwide mask shortage.

H-E-B announced April 9 that it will implement mandatory worker temperature screening. Rumors in the industry are that customer temperature screening and mandatory masks are next (which assumes mask availability at some point).

H-E-B has an amazing wealth of COVID-related information on its dedicated page. My personal favorite part is its announcement that it has extended paid sick leave to all of its employees. H-E-B was one of the key opponents of the San Antonio paid sick ordinance and lobbied the Legislature to overturn such ordinances statewide. A pandemic makes some things so much clearer, huh?

Kroger didn’t respond to my messages by our publication time, but most of its employees are represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which has good worker safety information on its website.

Communication and political director for Local 1000 labor union Anthony Elmo said that UFCW International explored simply buying PPE for all its members and quickly learned that would be impossible.

“Unless you’re a federal or state government, you’re quickly outbid for these supplies,” Elmo said.

When the union approached the major unionized grocery chains to form a consortium to buy PPE, the result was the same.

“Kroger is trying wider aisles in some stores around the country but not in DFW,” Elmo said when I asked him about distancing. “The bigger deal is limiting the capacity of the stores.”

Walmart uses a formula based on floor area that can admit 750-1,000 customers at a time. Kroger limits occupancy to 50% of fire code occupancy, which can mean 350 people.

“That’s too many people. The standards that are being thrown out there by the major retailers are inadequate to the moment,” Elmo said.

All my neighbors who can sew are making masks. I brought in a new sewing machine from the porch this week. My friends are doing strange things with underwear.

And sometime between January and now, we went from being the greatest nation on the planet to a half-assed circus sideshow. Be very careful at the grocery store.

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