Essential Businesses Struggle to Meet Needs Safely

by | Apr 13, 2020

Relying on staff to adhere to changing protocols and the public to maintain safe practices

By Andrew Belfry

While some small businesses have been forced to close their doors, others have never been busier resulting in a run on items, increased hours for staff and constantly changing safeguards to protect employees and customers from being exposed to COVID-19.

The combination of executive orders from Governor Gina Raimondo outlining new business procedures and Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines looms over small business owners with high foot traffic. Some are more prepared than others to handle the changes.

When hints of a pandemic reached Felicia Revens, owner of Felicia’s Coffee, she stocked up on cleaning agents and instructed her staff to clean every surface in between customers. As the pandemic became more prevalent, Revens ramped up her efforts and began staggering worker’s baking hours overnight and limiting the amount of customers in the store with many using the drive-thru or waiting in the outside.

“We are implementing protocols to make sure that my staff and our customers are safe,” Revens said. “And I’m asking our customers to realize they have to do their part. It is the responsibility of all of us.”

When asked if customers were abiding by the social distance limitations such as not dining-in and staying over 6 feet apart Revens said for the most part they were.

One employee at Dave’s Marketplace, who spoke on terms of anonymity, said that the majority of customers are abiding by the rules. However, some patrons are reaching their heads around the plexiglass shields that the grocery store installed at cash registers while others demand that staff members check for additional stock of certain items that are no longer left on shelves.

Dave’s Marketplace is providing gloves and hand sanitizer to its employees and encouraging those working in the store to voice concerns to management regarding safety.

Earlier this month, the CDC released new recommendations stating: “CDC is additionally advising the use of simple cloth face coverings to slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others,” according the organization’s website.

Dave’s spokeswoman Susan Budlong said they have not issued a mandate for employees to wear masks but that would be changing as soon as this week.

“We can’t mandate something until we can provide it,” she said. Up until April 3, masks needed to be reserved for health care workers and first responders. Dave’s did the right thing early on, Budlong said, by ordering masks through its vendor, then giving those masks to the state.

“We were thrown a curve ball that Friday [4/3],” Budlong said, when the governor issued a recommendation that everyone wear face coverings. 

She said about 65 to 70 percent of employees are wearing face covers. In some cases, a few customers have made face covers for employees; in other cases, employees are bringing face covers or masks from home. 

Budlong said Dave’s should be getting shipments of masks this week. Once they have enough for all employees, which she said could be as soon as Wednesday, Dave’s will mandate them.

Governor Raimondo said last week she is considering a directive regarding the use of cloth masks for frontline workers at high trafficked businesses such as grocery stores, coffee shops and liquor stores, but has not issued any direct orders. Dave’s and other businesses aren’t waiting for a state mandate.

Many employees at Thorpe’s Wines & Spirits are wearing face covers or masks, including Tyler McLaughlin here, and they have installed plexiglass to protect both cashiers and the public.

“We advise our staff to wear masks,” said Patti McGreen, owner of Thorpe’s Wine & Spirits. In addition to wearing masks in the store, staff members making deliveries are also wearing masks, although not required to do so. “Despite all of what we do, it’s still pretty stressful,” she said.

Both McGreen and Thorpe’s manager, Jackie Forsythe, said for many customers the interaction they have with staff might be the only human contact they have. This results in many customers lingering and causing the staff and other patrons to become uncomfortable.

“Operate as though everyone has the virus,” McGreen told her staff when implementing changes such as installing a plexiglass shield at the registers and tape on the floor to indicate how far everyone who steps foot in the store should remain apart.

She said it’s been a month since business started ramping up at Thorpe’s and it’s stayed busy. Deliveries are up and they offer curbside service for those who place an order over the phone and pay with a credit card, but more than 80 percent of customers are still coming into the store to do their shopping. 

With customers in mind, Reven’s said she is trying to bring some normalcy back to people’s lives by not making her coffee shop resemble a medical facility. “I ordered a couple dozen purple and orange bandanas for [the staff],” said Revens. “I don’t want people to come in and have that look of fear.”

Both McGreen and Revens stated that if employees did not feel comfortable to work, they would not be forced to and if they were sick, they would be instructed to stay home. When asked about paid sick leave, both women said their employees would not have to fear losing out on a paycheck.

As businesses try to stay nimble and implement necessary restrictions to safeguard their employees and patrons, many admit that the stress and complexity of the pandemic makes it all the more difficult.

“Actions are based on past experiences,” McGreen said. “And we’re in uncharted territory.”

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April 15, 2020 8:31 am

I just wrote Job Lot after encountering an unmasked customer in their NK store. I do not feel safe seeing unmasked people in enclosed areas, as I am in my 60’s and have several medical conditions making me vulnerable. New information shows that simply BREATHING, if you are asymptomatic or presymptomatic and shedding virus, spreads a cloud of aerosolized virus for many feet that lingers in the air for a very long time. Therefore masking of EVERYONE is essential. I asked Job Lot to provide free disposable masks to customers who do not have them, and insist they wear them, as per Gov. Raimondo’s directive. I told them I will no longer shop there until they insist that everyone in the store be masked. Please do what you can to share this with other local businesses. Thank you.


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