Zoe Morgan/Town Crier Gloria Vargas cleans a self-checkout stand at Nob Hill Foods in Mountain View.

For much of 2020, COVID-19-related public health orders closed many businesses and confined people to their homes. As “essential businesses,” grocery stores kept operating. But conducting business during a pandemic posed challenges both for store employees and customers.

When it comes to keeping customers and employees safe, how are local grocery stores faring? The Town Crier reached out to representatives from several markets for answers, among them Safeway/Andronico’s in Los Altos and Mountain View; Nob Hill Foods in Mountain View; Draeger’s Market in Los Altos; Lucky supermarket in Los Altos; Whole Foods Market in Los Altos; and Trader Joe’s in Los Altos and Mountain View. Lucky representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

To date, the markets have held up well, both by their own accounts and by the lack of violations reported by local health authorities. Only one local market, Draeger’s, closed briefly after a COVID outbreak among employees last July, but it has not experienced any problems recently. While other markets have dealt with COVID cases, they have not resulted in closures.

The state’s Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) fined Draeger’s $13,500 in January, citing COVID safety violations. Draeger’s appealed the citation. According to owner John Draeger, the appeal has been settled. The settlement document states “terms are not intended to be … an admission of negligence, fault or wrongdoing whatsoever by the employer.”

“All of our staff are coronavirus-free,” Draeger told the Town Crier. “Consistent with our past efforts to maintain a safe shopping environment, Draeger’s has offered a $100 bonus to every employee who is vaccinated. A substantial and growing number of our staff have been vaccinated.”

Safety, sanitation at the forefront

Grocery store representatives responding for this story confirmed COVID-19 cases among employees, though few were forthcoming with specifics.

“I can confirm that the Whole Foods Market store at Los Altos, like all large grocery retailers, has experienced positive COVID-19 cases among some of our team members,” said a Whole Foods spokesperson in a typical response.

Safeway, like Draeger’s, offers employees $100 bonuses for getting vaccinated. Spokesperson Wendy Gutshall explained Safeway’s protocol when there is a COVID-19 case.

“When an associate at one of our stores is confirmed to have COVID-19, we contact the associate to ensure they are seeking appropriate medical care and to initiate a close-contacts investigation. Following that investigation, we may recommend that additional members of the team self-quarantine,” she said. “For associates who need to self-quarantine, they can receive up to 14 days of quarantine pay before having to access any of their accrued time-off benefits.”

Nob Hill, run by Raley’s, has emphasized transparency during the pandemic, making confirmed COVID cases available in real-time on its website.

“At our Nob Hill Foods in Mountain View, we have had 11 positive cases since March of 2020,” said spokesperson Chelsea Minor. “Our tracking and reporting shows that Raley’s rate of confirmed COVID cases is less than the rate of confirmed cases in the general population of the states in which we operate, including California and Nevada.”

Minor said Nob Hill has made significant investments in safety and sanitation standards, including surface cleanings and ensuring free face coverings are available for employees and customers.

Santa Clara County Public Health Department officials said they did not have records of COVID violations among the local markets to whom the Town Crier reached out. There were no fines reported or issued through April 30.

“If a worker tests positive for COVID-19, businesses must alert the Public Health Department within four hours and ensure that workers alert their employers if they were at the workplace while infectious,” a county spokesperson said.

“If case reporting identifies a cluster of cases at a particular business and there is concern for worksite transmission, the Public Health Department’s Special Investigations Group provides technical assistance to the worksite. … Reporting of positive cases at a worksite does not necessarily indicate transmission within the worksite. The county does not currently have a comprehensive listing of all cases by worksite.”

Part of the solution

Restrictions are easing as more people get vaccinated. Markets with pharmacies like Safeway are offering vaccinations by appointment.

“Our pharmacy teams are working diligently as part of the national effort to administer the COVID-19 vaccine,” Gutshall said. “We are working very closely with federal and state partners to help administer the vaccine in accordance with the guidelines set by local health jurisdictions.”

Those currently eligible for vaccination can find Safeway’s appointment scheduler and FAQs at safeway.com/COVID-19.