- Six employees at a Whole Foods store in Washington, D.C. tested positive for coronavirus last week, local TV station WUSA9 reported. Workers told the station that cases began emerging in mid-March but the store did not shut down for a deep cleaning and shoppers were not notified. Co-workers were notified by text and email.
- Whole Foods responded that it had cleanings performed overnight by a third-party service and instituted "enhanced" daily cleanings. A chain spokesperson told the station it is “meeting any notification of a diagnosis with swift and comprehensive action and communication” and won’t close stores because of the “thorough nature of our daily enhanced cleaning procedures and our escalated safety protocols.”
- Four other Whole Foods locations in Washington, D.C. have employees that tested positive for coronavirus.
The outbreak of COVID-19 at the Washington, D.C. Whole Foods underscores the risks frontline workers face amid the escalating novel coronavirus pandemic. It also raises questions about retailers' cleaning procedures and whether they have an obligation to inform the public when workers fall ill.
Grocers are currently not required to notify customers when an employee has tested positive for COVID-19. In a recent interview with Fort Meyers' New-Press, Hilary Thesmar, vice president of food safety at FMI, the Food Industry Association, said it's up to the individual company as to whether or not they should inform their shoppers and the public.
Some retailers are choosing full transparency. A Trader Joe’s employee that works at a Washington, D.C. location on 14th Street recently tested positive for coronavirus, as did a Giant Food employee at one of its D.C. locations. Both companies released statements informing customers and said they would temporarily shut down operations to clean the stores.
Sprouts has a page on its website that shows the number of confirmed employee cases and what dates they were last inside the store. Meanwhile, The Fresh Market posted a sign at the front entrance of a Florida store for 24 hours and sent a statement to local media after an employee recently tested positive, according to the News-Press.
Walmart, on the other hand, is not offering information voluntarily to the public and leaving individual confirmations up to the health department. And Publix said it will only confirm positive cases upon request.
Consumers along with groups like the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) expressed dismay at the Whole Foods outbreak, and the fact that it took a store whistleblower to reveal the news to the public. The UFCW has reported at least 30 COVID deaths among its members and said more than 3,000 have taken sick days after showing signs of infection. A recent survey conducted by the group found that 85% said customers were not practicing recommended social distancing measures inside stores.
But telling shoppers isn’t always the right decision, Rebecca Thompson, a Walmart corporate communications manager told the News-Press. Thompson says that stores need to weigh pros and cons and make decisions based on their communication tools, their corporate philosophy and their customers. She noted that, often, by the time an employee finds out they tested positive, it’s already been a week since they’ve been in the store and there’s no risk to shoppers since the time has passed.
Given the lack of widespread testing in the U.S., confirming positive cases has also proven challenging. The UFCW, along with Albertsons and Kroger, are pushing the federal government to classify grocery workers as essential, which would give them additional access to testing.
As the pandemic spreads, grocers have focused on tightening up safety requirements for their workers and customers. Walmart says beginning this week all workers will be required to wear masks, while Whole Foods says it will provide masks and face shields for all employees. Last week, The Fresh Market began requiring customers and employees to wear masks inside all of its stores.