Josh Peterson rings up items last Tuesday for a customer who is standing behind a table to enforce social distancing at the Gardiner Food Co-op. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal  Buy this Photo

The days of waiting in line to check out at the grocery or chatting in the produce section have come to an end across central Maine — for now.

With restrictions in place imposed by executive order to slow the spread of the coronavirus,  grocery stores — from village general stores to large-chain supermarkets — have changed how they do business.

Customers are being asked to wait at the entrance until another customer leaves, if they are being allowed in at all. Others line up in vehicles for curbside pickup of groceries and household supplies.

On March 31, Gov. Janet Mills issued Executive Order 35, which imposed stricter limits on public contact and movement, schools, vehicle traffic and retail business operations. In it and the updated guidance issued April 10,  the number of people allowed in grocery or convenience store is limited by square footage.

Stores have adopted a number of strategies to limit the number of customers who come through the door.

At Gowell’s Shop N Save in Litchfield, owner Rick Gowell said the number of carts available in the parking lot indicates how many people are allowed inside. When the carts are gone, he said, the store has reached its limit, and people have to wait at the cones that have been set up in the parking lot.

“We’re also permitting one person per household,” Gowell said. “That’s how we’re keeping things even and fair for everybody.”

Some people have been upset and fewer have been rude, but he and his employees try not to take it personally.

“We realize it’s just one more thing where they’re restricted,” Gowell said. “We’re probably some of the only people they see in the course of their day, so they’re venting at us. We just try to smile.”

As an independent store in the Hannaford supermarkets chain, he said, the store also follows all of Hannaford’s cleaning requirements.

On its website, Hannaford has announced it has  made masks available to all employees and strongly recommends wearing them. The company also offers face shields and gloves to employees who choose to wear them. Where required by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Protection, gloves are being worn.

In addition to limits on customers, Shaw’s supermarkets has announced enhanced measures to frequently clean and disinfect its stores, including restrooms and high-touch areas, and conduct deep cleaning at the end of every business day. The chain has also waived delivery fees for prescriptions in most instances.

Stores across the region have reached out to customers however they can, letting them know how to navigate the new customer limits.

At Fuller’s Market in West Gardiner, Walt Longfellow described the process used there via a video on Facebook. It is similar to the one used at Gowell’s, but instead of shopping carts, it is shopping baskets. Customers entering the store are asked to pick up a basket. If none is outside, that means the store is at its limit.

Kylee Cochrane rings up a masked customer last Wednesday at Flying Pond Variety Store in Mount Vernon.  Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

At Flying Pond Variety in Mount Vernon, the size of the store dictates that only five customers are allowed in at once.

Owner Matt Dunn acknowledges the number of customers has reached six on a couple of occasions.  But now, with concerns over contact with other people, his business has grown to offer more groceries, meat and produce, and has shifted to filling call-in orders.

“That’s where I think 50% of my business is right now — call-in and text,” Dunn said.

Until now, call-in orders have been rare, he said. He is filling orders both locally and at some distance. Dunn’s wife, Cathy, is a nurse-educator at St. Mary’s d’Youville Pavilion in Lewiston, and she brings groceries to co-workers who have placed orders.

Like other store owners, Dunn said he has been searching out sanitizer and protective equipment, including gloves and masks, for employees. He was able to acquire N95 masks from a customer and surgical masks from one of his suppliers. Some of those will go with Cathy Dunn to St. Mary’s, he said.

The issue of who should wear masks has been a matter of debate.

On its Coronavirus Disease 19 webpage, the U.S. CDC is recommending wearing cloth face coverings in public, particularly where maintaining 6 feet of separation from others is difficult to maintain, particularly where community transmission is taking place.

That advice was echoed last Monday by Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention.

Shah drew a distinction between face masks, such as surgical masks or N95 respirators that should be reserved for health care workers, and face coverings that can be made at home with fabric and elastic.

“That guidance is worth heeding,” Shah said, noting he had not been out in a public setting, such as a grocery store, where such protection is needed, but members of his family have and they have worn face coverings.

“It doesn’t protect you so much from other people,” Shah said. “It protects other people from you and any virus that you might transmit. In that regard, there are some data that suggest that these cloth face coverings can reduce the spread or transmission by some amount. That’s a good thing. At this point, without a vaccine, we should take every advantage we can get.”

But, Shah said, face coverings are not substitutes for physical distancing, and wearing a face covering does not mean one can crowd others who are standing in line.

The executive order outlines penalties for defying the restrictions, but in central Maine, no penalties have so far been assessed.

Maine State Police Lt. Patrick Hood said State Police have taken an educational approach to enforcement, letting store owners know about the restrictions.

“From the stores I’ve been in,” Hood said via email, “all have some type of social distancing markings both inside and outside. I was at a convenience store last week at lunchtime when a group of line workers came in to order food.”

The problem was solved when the limit was explained, and the customers ordered from the parking lot, he said.

“For now, I feel like most are abiding by the (executive order),” Hood said. “But as time pushes on, I think we may have more issues with patrons pushing the envelope, not so much with business ignoring the EO (executive order).”

Neither the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office nor the Augusta Police Department has taken complaints concerning the number of customers allowed in stores.

“We have received a few complaints about price gouging through the Attorney General’s Office,” Lt. Chris Read of the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office said via email. “However, the complaints were investigated and nothing resulted in any charges.”


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