A similar policy could allow elderly and immune-compromised to shop without exposure to the rest of the population.

By Mike Pomranz
March 17, 2020
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The coronavirus outbreak has upended the grocery industry. Across America, a mix of sensible stocking up and pure panic buying has led supermarkets to reduce their hours, providing staff with additional time to refill barren shelves and clean and sanitize the overwhelmed store. But though cutting hours has benefitted employees, discussion has also turned to setting aside hours specifically for high-risk customers such as the elderly to reduce their potential exposure to COVID-19. It’s an idea that appears to be gaining steam.

Yesterday, Chef José Andrés—who’s turned to running community kitchens since shuttering his own restaurants and whose World Central Kitchen nonprofit has traveled the globe to feed coronavirus-infected cruise ships—tweeted his support for the concept, urging major chains and politicians to support this cause. “Supermarkets should open early mornings for 2 hours for elderly above 60, to protect them from contact with younger people,” Andrés wrote. “So @WholeFoods @Safeway @Walmart @Publix @Albertsons @GiantFood @kroger @HEB @LidlUS @FoodLion @MarketBasket @Piggly_Wiggly please unite and offer 2 hours of shopping for elderly over 60 and/or shopping+delivery system for elderly #Savinglifes @SpeakerPelosi @senatemajldr @VP.”

Andrés isn’t alone in this idea. Starting today, Woolworths Supermarket—Australia’s largest supermarket chain (not be confused with the former American brand)—launched a policy allowing the elderly to enter with an official ID an hour before everyone else to get the first pickings after the store’s been restocked. “This temporary measure will give them, and those with a disability, the opportunity to shop before ​our stores officially open – helping them obtain the ​essential ​items they need most in a less crowded environment,” Managing Director Claire Peters explained in the announcement.

CNN reports that at least one other Australia supermarket chain—Coles—has enacted a similar policy, offering “a dedicated ‘Community Hour’ in all supermarkets to improve access to essential groceries for the elderly and disadvantaged, during this time of unprecedented demand,” the company writes.

However, in America, grocery stores have been slower to take similar actions. Yesterday, the government of Jersey City, New Jersey, posted to its official Facebook page that it would “be reaching out to all of the local grocery stores (3 registers or more) + we’re going to be setting aside hours at supermarkets for elderly residents, ppl w/disabilities and pregnant residents only, during the hours of 9-11am starting Tuesday 3/17.” And according to Fox 8 News, Jack Bradley—mayor of Lorain, Ohio—had similar discussions with supermarkets in his city of about 65,000 people.

Photo taken on March 17, 2020 shows the seniors shopping at a Woolworths supermarket in Canberra, Australia.
| Credit: Xinhua News Agency / Contributor/Getty Images

Still, only two different grocery chains responded to José Andrés tweet, and just one of them said they were taking his suggestion. Stop & Shop wrote, “Beginning 3/19, all Stop & Shop stores will open earlier from 6:00AM-7:30AM daily to serve customers who are age 60 and over only.” (More details can be found on the chain's website.)

H-E-B also replied, but stated that, despite considering this plan, the advice they received suggested it wasn’t the best option. “We would not be heeding expert recommendations to ask a group to congregate at our stores in a certain timeframe,” the Texas-based chain tweeted.

That said, as we’ve seen, coronavirus policy can turn on a dime, so it’s certainly possible that we will see more grocers figuring out ways to help the elderly and other at-risk groups as things continue to develop over the coming days, weeks, and maybe even months.