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A protective plexiglass screen prototype is installed in a Sobeys in Mississauga, Ont., on March 19, 2020. Sobeys Handout

Sobeys/Handout

Sobeys parent company Empire Co. Ltd. has ordered thousands of plexiglass screens to be installed at store checkouts in an effort to provide some separation between staff and customers.

The new screens will be accompanied by stickers on the floor with footprints on them leading to the checkouts and instructing customers to stay two metres apart while lining up.

Empire’s plan is just one example of how grocery retailers are working to implement social distancing measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

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Grocers are balancing the need to stay open and keep Canadians supplied with essential goods with concerns about becoming risky gathering places where the virus could spread.

The screens will be installed at all of Empire’s grocery banners, including Sobeys, Safeway, IGA, Foodland and FreshCo, as well as some of its pharmacies, convenience stores, gas stations and liquor stores. The screens are a windowlike barrier between the cashier’s terminal and the checkout lane but are open on the sides; they do not enclose cashiers or prevent customers from handing over cash or taking change.

Empire has been in contact with retailers in countries such as Italy, South Korea and Australia to share ideas as they stay open during the pandemic – including how often staff should be washing their hands and best practices for suppliers delivering goods to stores. After seeing similar shields at stores in other countries, over just a couple of days the company built prototypes of its own and began placing orders.

“Those front-line [employees] are what make the stores run,” said Mark Holly, senior vice-president of real estate and construction for Sobeys. “Knowing the short supplies for [equipment] such as masks and gloves, there was a quick decision yesterday … that we were going to implement this right away across the chain and to move as fast as possible.”

Sobeys is not alone in making changes; other grocers have also announced measures to limit the risks to both shoppers and staff, such as increasing the frequency of store cleanings. Many, including banners owned by Sobeys, Loblaw, Metro and Save-on-Foods, have shortened their opening hours in order to provide extra time for cleaning and to take pressure off stressed and overworked staffers.

Things have changed quickly. Last week, self-serve areas such as take-away hot-food tables were still open, but stores have begun shutting them down, along with putting a halt to in-store sampling. Stores are also prepackaging more items, significantly scaling back bulk and other loose products.

Loblaw Companies Ltd. is also putting a cap on the number of shoppers allowed into its busiest stores, to avoid crowding. Loblaw said Thursday it would close every other checkout lane in many stores and drop a 5-cent fee for disposable plastic bags to encourage shoppers to use them rather than bring their own reusable bags or bins. Sobeys is encouraging customers to bag their own groceries when possible.

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“These changes will lead to a very different shopping experience, but they are necessary,” Loblaw executive chairman Galen Weston said in a video released Thursday, asking shoppers to keep a safe distance from other customers and staff. “Our stores remain open thanks to good people working incredibly hard. We’re counting on them to be safe and healthy.”

Grocers around the world are grappling with this issue, including in Italy, where shoppers at a supermarket in Milan were photographed lining up while spaced one or two metres apart.

Starting Wednesday, Empire began making calls to suppliers about the new checkout screens; by noon Thursday, it had installed prototypes in a Sobeys store in Mississauga, Ont., and an IGA in Montreal. It has now ordered four suppliers across the country to begin manufacturing and will begin more installations Friday.

The smallest of those suppliers is Halifax-based Lahey Glass, which placed a rush order for 500 sheets of plexiglass Thursday. Like many companies, Lahey has seen its business dry up as COVID-19 has led customers – including retailers and developers that own apartment buildings – to minimize visits to install new glass or shut down entirely. Lahey laid off almost a third of its 29 employees Wednesday.

“This will prevent us from doing any further layoffs,” said co-owner Joe Flander. “Everybody’s doing the high-fiving, they’re all so excited about this."

Empire expects the new screens will be installed at every checkout in roughly 1,500 stores in three to four weeks. “We haven’t even tallied up” the final cost, Mr. Holly said.

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The screens are sturdy enough to stay up for years, he added, but for now they are intended as a temporary measure.

“We’re going to own a lot of plexiglass when they do come down,” he said.

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