As the novel coronavirus continues its spread across the globe, people are rushing to stock up on supplies, leading to bare shelves and large crowds at grocery stores. In the era of social distancing, this is a problem—particularly for elderly citizens and other people who are at high risk of developing serious complications from the virus. Now, stores all around the world are implementing special shopping hours for seniors and other vulnerable groups, to help ensure that they too are able to obtain food and other essentials.
Among those to announce designated shopping times is Albertsons, whose brands include Safeway, Acme and Vons, according to Kelly Tyko of USA Today; the company’s estimated 2,000 locations will be reserving two hours every Tuesday and Thursday morning for “vulnerable” shoppers, among them senior citizens, pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems. Target said it would reserve the first hour of shopping every Wednesday morning for seniors and individuals with underlying health concerns. Dollar General will dedicate a “senior hour” every morning. Whole Foods announced that all of its stores in the United States and Canada will open one hour early for customers who are over 60; in the United Kingdom, the designated shopping hour is reserved for people over 70 years old.
The idea, Dollar General spokeswoman Crystal Ghassemi tells Lateshia Beachum of the Washington Post, is to give susceptible populations the chance to shop in less-busy environments. “We want to make sure that, just given their higher susceptibility to the virus, that it gives them an opportunity to have a little bit more pleasant shopping experience,” she says.
COVID-19 is believed to spread mainly through person-to-person contact, which is why the CDC recommends putting “distance between yourself and other people if COVID-19 is spreading in your community.” This is especially important, the CDC adds, for individuals who are at higher risk of “getting very sick.”
Estimates for COVID-19 fatality rates have ranged from 1.4 percent to 3 percent, but it seems clear that the death rate climbs as age increases. Of the confirmed cases in China, where the outbreak started, nearly 15 percent of COVID-19 infected patients over the age of 80 have died. Those with chronic medical conditions, including heart disease, diabetes and lung disease, are also more likely to become severely sick and die. People who are immunocompromised—among them, possibly, pregnant women—face increased risk as well.
But does encouraging groups of susceptible people to congregate at grocery stores during designated shopping hours actually keep them safe? Experts aren’t so sure. “[T]hat kind of makes me nervous,” Alysa Krain, an infectious disease doctor specializing in geriatric medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, tells the Post. “It was a good idea in general, but it’s a little bit dangerous if it’s not controlled.”
Stores, Krain elaborates, should limit their special shopping hours to crowds of 50 people, and try to make sure that seniors are staying six feet away from each other. But she and her colleagues are encouraging their patients to have friends and family shop for them. Volunteers in certain areas have, in fact, been offering to deliver groceries to seniors.
H-E-B, a supermarket chain with more than 400 stores in Texas and Mexico, said in a statement that it will not be instituting hours for at-risk shoppers. “Due to recommendations from health officials we have determined this is not the best and safest option for our customers," the company explained, according to CNN’s David Willilams. Instead, H-E-B is encouraging people to use its online ordering system. In the United Kingdom, the grocery chain Sainsbury’s has promised to prioritize elderly people and other vulnerable populations for online delivery.
Though she also expressed concerns about too many susceptible people gathering in one place, Bettina Fries, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Medicine, tells the Post that designated shopping hours could still be helpful.
“I hope the scattered shopping hours would lead to seniors being in a store with less people,” she says. “It’s less likely that you will have [a] senior with coronavirus in a store because they’re less likely to be asymptomatic."