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Shoppers Put Everyone At Risk When They Converge On Kansas City's Big Box Stores

Laura Ziegler
KCUR 89.3
Shoppers, like these at a Walmart in Roeland Park, Kansas, say it is almost impossible to keep a safe distance in many big box stores.

When a Walmart employee tested positive for the novel coronavirus early in March, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear pointed a finger at big box retailers, warning them to take social distancing orders seriously. A local television station reported the governor's response: find a way to enforce the directives or “we’re going to have to see how essential they are.”

There have been a handful of workers in big box stores around the country who have tested positive for COVID-19. None, as far as we know, from the Kansas City area. But experts say big box stores present particular challenges in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 because, well, they’re so big.

“Some people might not consciously realize whether they’re standing six feet away from each other or not in a facility so big,” says Elaine Nsoesie, assistant professor of global health at Boston University.

Credit Laura Ziegler / KCUR 89.3
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Most big box stores, like this Home Depot in Overland Park, Kansas, are marking spots at check out counters to ensure customers don't stand too close together.

Nsoesie and other experts applaud the measures most big box retailers are taking, such as marking floors with tape to space shoppers apart and putting plexiglass between cashiers and customers.

At Lowe's Home Improvement in Overland Park, Kansas, shoppers hear announcements over the loudspeaker every 15 minutes to remind them to stay six feet from others. Customers have the option of checking out at a mobile site if they choose.

Walmart said earlier this week it would be taking employees' temperature as they report to work, although the process of sending infrared thermometers to all stores could take up to three weeks. Those with temperatures over 100 degrees will be asked to take a paid leave and not return until they have been fever-free for three days.

At Home Depot, spokesperson Margaret Smith says homeowners and businesses depend on their stores for urgent needs like cleaning supplies, as well as electrical and plumbing repair items. She says the stores are making every effort to say open while putting protective measures in place.

“We’re making sure we limit customers in our high traffic stores,” Smith says. “We’re also closing all our stores early to sanitize, among other things.”

Credit Laura Ziegler / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Employee Tara Gann feels Home Depot is doing what it can to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Home Depot employee Tara Gann says she's comfortable that management at the Overland Park store at 95th and Metcalf where she works has her back.

“They’re on it," she says. Straightening the plastic badge on her collar that reads “six feet away” in bold type, she feels she can protect herself at work and managers will support her.

“On occasion, customers get too close and I ask them politely to just back up,” she says. She hasn’t had any problems so far.

But some shoppers at this Home Depot are less confident in the ability to maintain social distancing.

Credit Laura Ziegler / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Katelyn Colwell was not aware of the efforts to enforce social distancing while in Home Depot.

15-year-old Katelyn Colwell had been shopping with her dad. She didn’t see anything inside that reminded her about COVID-19 prevention practices, that there were any new policies in place.

“I guess people were kind of social distancing but you can’t really help going by someone in an aisle,” she said as she sat in the family car, waiting for her dad. “ Maybe some people were trying but many definitely were not.”

John Tucker was leaving the store with a heavy plastic bag full of cleaning supplies. This new reality, he said, has changed his life.

“We used to clean house once a week," he said. "Now it’s every other day, if not every day.”

He said it was his first time out for a month other than to go to the grocery store. He noticed the tape markings on the floor but said, really, the store has no control over people’s personal behavior, and that’s what makes him nervous.

“In a smaller place you can watch people and see what’s going on,” he said. “(Here) you never know who is coughing or sneezing, if there is an infected person in the room.”

In Roeland Park, Kansas, the parking lot of Walmart was crowded on Wednesday afternoon. Inside, a loudspeaker played a social distancing reminder on a loop but it was difficult to hear above the constant buzz of shoppers, definitely fewer than usual but still an impressive crowd.

A group of four, who may or may not have been a family, looked for what they wanted while an annoyed shopper inched her cart closer, hoping to pass. Elsewhere, a man pulled a box off a shelf, decided it wasn’t what he wanted and put it back. People everywhere are carrying their phones.

Experts are concerned about all of it: The proximity to others, multiple hands on products and the germs on our handheld devices.

These stores are some of the only places still open, and stocked for essential items we need while we're stuck at home. Do-it-yourself projects never had such appeal and big box stores have what we need to carry them out. Their garden centers provide potting soil and perennials so people can get outside and work in their yards like health care professionals recommend.

Boston University’s global health professor Elaine Nsoesie says really, big box stores are no more risky than other places people congregate, so it's up to customers to keep their distance.

“I think there’s only so much stores can do to make sure people follow rules," she says. "We as individuals need to take that responsibility not only for our own sake but also the people around us.”

Laura Ziegler is a community engagement reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter @laurazig or by email at lauraz@kcur.org.

I partner with communities to uncover the ignored or misrepresented stories by listening and letting communities help identify and shape a narrative. My work brings new voices, sounds, and an authentic sense of place to our coverage of the Kansas City region. My goal is to tell stories on the radio, online, on social media and through face to face conversations that enhance civic dialogue and provide solutions.
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