Even as food sellers comply with stricter health rules, workers push for more protections

Cities and states across the country are pushing farmers’ markets and grocery stores to enhance their public health measures after officials found some initial attempts at social distancing policies lacking. Yet grocery workers say that in order to effectively prevent the spread of coronavirus and keep themselves healthy, they need more protections and benefits.

When the first states issued stay-at-home orders to help mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus, food businesses scrambled to ensure they could continue operating. But as restrictions on businesses and public gatherings have tightened, food sellers are being asked to comply with increasingly strict public health measures.

In cities like Los Angeles and New York, farmers’ markets must now install handwashing stations and offer a single entrance and exit, among other rules. States including Rhode Island, Delaware, and Connecticut have ordered grocery stores to regulate shopper interactions, limit how many people can shop at once, and install plexiglass shields at checkout counters.

Amid a wave of concern that shoppers at fresh food markets weren’t taking social distancing seriously, Washington, D.C. announced Wednesday night that the city’s farmers’ markets must cease operations pending approval of their health and safety plans. The city will also require shoppers to wear face masks at all grocery stores and require the stores to provide hand sanitizer.

Yet in order to comply with these regulations and effectively prevent the spread of the virus, food system workers still need more protections, say labor leaders. At least four people who worked at grocery stores have died from Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in recent days.

“This is not a time for broad, vague measures. We need specific, enforceable mandates to ensure everyone’s safety,” said Mark Federici, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400, which represents some grocery workers in D.C., in response to the city’s new regulations. The union wants grocery workers classified as first responders so that they can get access to personal protective equipment (PPE) and free coverage of coronavirus treatment and tests.

Some states, including Minnesota, Michigan, and Vermont, have designated retail grocery workers as emergency workers, thereby entitling them to free or reimbursed childcare. But those policies don’t go far enough, say worker advocates. A national coalition of food and farm groups called on congressional leaders earlier this month to pass stronger protections for food system workers, including PPE provision, expanded benefits and hazard pay, and stronger food safety enforcement.

“Food and farm workers need to be designated ‘first responders,’ because they are on the front lines of this battle,” the groups wrote in a letter. “They deserve not only our gratitude but adequate protection and provision for their health, safety, and financial security.” The coalition includes the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, the James Beard Foundation, Oxfam America, Wholesome Wave, and many others.

As the coronavirus pandemic has spread, states and cities have taken a patchwork approach to regulating food businesses and implementing public health measures. Grocery stores are open everywhere, but whether and how customers and workers are required to practice social distancing and sanitation varies widely.

In Los Angeles, farmers’ markets had been allowed to operate until mayor Eric Garcetti shuttered them on March 30 because of concerns about public safety. Two days later, he reopened two dozen markets under new public health guidelines.

In D.C., farmers’ markets will now need a waiver to resume operations and must comply with new regulations like limiting purchases to “grab-and-go” options, creating a pre-ordering system, and eliminating on-site food preparation. Markets that don’t comply will be shut down, Mayor Muriel Bowser said at a press conference Thursday.

The city is prioritizing approving markets that have pre-order, pre-packaged, and delivery options already in place, said Ona Balkus, the food policy director at the D.C. Office of Planning, in an email. Officials are hoping the order will reduce both the number of shoppers at markets and how long they spend there, Balkus said.

Molly Scalise, the director of communications and outreach at FreshFarm, D.C.’s largest farmers’ market organization, is hopeful that the city’s markets will be able to reopen quickly because they had already implemented most of the public health measures required by the new order. Particularly in lower-income parts of the city, markets are an essential tool of food access, she said.

“We believe deeply that farmers’ markets are an essential service to communities and to local agriculture, and that farmers’ markets are a critical source of nutritious food for shoppers from all economic backgrounds across our region,” Scalise wrote in an email. “We will do everything we can to make sure our markets can open and serve the communities who rely on them.”