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Some Grocery Stores Are Letting Seniors Shop For Food An Hour Before Everyone Else

Check Chen shops for groceries during special hours open to seniors only at Uwajimaya, an Asian specialty supermarket in Seattle, Washington, on March 18, 2020. (Karen Ducey/Getty Images)
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They're calling it "senior shopping hour." Grocery Outlet in Altadena was among the first stores to announce via social media that they'd set aside hours exclusively for seniors. It starts tomorrow, Thursday, March 19, and works like this: for the first hour of business — 7 to 8 a.m. — the store will only welcome shoppers who are at least 60 years old or are immune-compromised.

The idea is to allow some of the people who are at the highest risk of potentially life-threatening coronavirus complications to shop in an environment with fewer disease vectors (aka other human beings.)

"We had seen on the news how critical it was for people who were 65 or older to stay home and I thought, 'We've got to help them get food,'" says Michell Guajardo, who owns and operates the Altadena location of Grocery Outlet. "They were just afraid to come in because the store was so packed. When I woke up in the morning [after we announced we were going to do this], over 100,000 people had responded to our Facebook post and I knew there was a need. We want to make sure we reach the most vulnerable."

Bottled water, firewood, produce and other goods await shoppers at Grocery Outlet in Altadena on March 7, 2020.
(Grocery Outlet Altadena via Facebook)
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In later social posts, Guajardo clarified the protocols for the daily senior shopping hour. Employees will allow no more than 50 shoppers into the store at the same time and they must stay at least a basket-length away from other customers. Shoppers must also come in alone, unless they need medical support. If necessary, staff will extend the senior shopping hour until 9 a.m., when the store opens to all customers.

If customers are worried about going into the store, volunteers will be on hand to take their lists, do their shopping and bring the groceries back to their vehicles.

Volunteers will also hand out latex gloves to customers as they enter the store and wipe down each shopping cart when customers are done.

Dr. Lisa Gibbs, the chief of geriatrics and gerontology at UC Irvine, approves — both of the overall concept and the protocol Grocery Outlet is enforcing.

"I think that's the type of progressive thinking we need and I would encourage that sort of service," she says.

An elderly couple wearing respiratory masks push a shopping cart loaded with food after shopping in a LIDL supermarket in Casalpusterlengo, Milan, Italy on February 23, 2020.
(Emanuele Cremaschi/Getty Images)

She thinks anything that reduces the numbers of people in a store at a particular time when seniors and other high-risk populations are shopping, is good. But she doesn't want these senior shopping hours to lull older people into a false sense of security about COVID-19.

"People need to remember that if you can be home, be home. People still need to maintain caution," she says. Gibbs advises people to reduce the number of items they touch while they are shopping, toss out their latex gloves when they leave the store and, after they get home and unpack their groceries, to wash their hands.

A man carrying a bag with groceries leaves Disco supermarket on March 18, 2020 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. As an emergency measure, some supermarkets decided to open one hour earlier and give exclusive access to people over 65.
(Lalo Yasky/Getty Images)

Grocery Outlet, a bargain market chain based in Northern California, has aggressively expanded into Southern California in the last five years, opening in Altadena in December 2018. Each store is separately owned so the senior shopping hour isn't a policy across the entire chain.

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A day the Altadena location's announcement, Northgate González Market said it too would reserve an hour every morning, from 7 to 8 a.m., for "seniors 65-years and older and disabled" people. The policy went into effect Tuesday, March 17 at all 41 of its markets throughout Southern California.

The following day, Vallarta Supermarkets said in a news release it would begin offering new store hours from 7 to 8 a.m. "exclusively for seniors, ages 65 and over, pregnant women and those with disabilities," effective Wednesday, March 18. The temporary new hours will be in effect at all 50 of Vallarta's California locations, which stretch from San Diego to Fresno.

More recently, Target announced it will institute a similar policy, reserving the first hour of each Wednesday for elderly shoppers and those with underlying health health concerns. The chain will also close all of it U.S. stores by 9 p.m.

Stater Bros. said it will open all 169 of its stores at 7:45 a.m. for people who are 65 and over. But that only gives seniors 15 minutes before everyone else comes in.

On Monday, March 31, Ralphs expanded its senior shopping hours, which it had launched on March 20, to an hour-and a-half each morning — from 6 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. In a news release, the store said it also "encourages and appreciates customers allowing senior citizens to move to the front of the line throughout the day."

Mitsuwa Marketplace, a chain of Japanese markets qith six locations in Southern California, will offer exclusive access to seniors 60 years and older and pregnant shoppers on Saturdays, from 8 to 9 a.m.

The 99-Cent Only stores announced that they will reserve 7 to 8 a.m. on Tuesday and Thursday for senior shopping hours at all stores.

Chef José Andrés, who runs the Bazaar, Tres and Somni restaurants in the SLS Hotel in Los Angeles along with several other high-end restaurants around the world, has been urging U.S. grocery stores to follow suit.

Andrés has helped feed people after several major disasters including to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria and Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Most recently, he transformed his restaurants in the Washington area into community kitchens selling low-cost takeout plates.

These stores are all following in the footsteps of stores in Australia and Ireland that began the practice in an effort to minimize the threat of the coronavirus. Even then, keeping shelves stocked has been a challenge.

Still, Dr. Gibbs thinks some of the solutions we're enacting now, like senior shopping hours, could lead to positive changes that will make life easier for seniors long after the coronavirus crisis passes.

"As awful as this crisis is," she says, "I think a lot of us are adopting some best practices that will be beneficial for society in the future."

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