COVID-19 Update, May 13: State officials remind shoppers to wear masks to protect essential workers

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times @mikemcgannpa

Although the number of new COVID-19 cases in the commonwealth — and Chester County — appears to be shrinking, state officials are reminding residents to continue to be patient as the state works through the crisis.

One area in particular is anger that seems to be being vented at workers at grocery stores and other essential retailers when employees ask customers to comply with state guidance and wear a mask or facial covering. There have been numerous reports of customers lashing out — even to the point of violence — when asked to cover up.

“During these unusual times, there should be an unspoken covenant of mutual respect; just as we as consumers expect stores to be open and there for us when we need them, the workforce expects and deserves their customers to do their part to reduce risk,” said Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding. “Don’t put employees in the uncomfortable position of asking you to wear a mask. Be prepared with a mask before you enter a store. Remember, my mask protects you; your mask protects me. Using a mask and social distancing during this temporary time not only helps mitigate the spread of his highly contagious virus, but it’s also a way to show we care for one another.”

To be clear, Redding said, the masks aren’t to protect the customers, but rather the essential workers at life-sustaining businesses. Customers at supermarkets and pharmacies must wear masks to enter the store, unless they have a medical condition that prevents them from wearing a mask. If the customer does not wish to wear a mask, these stores must provide an alternate means of delivering goods.

“Essential workers see many people each day. We can minimize their risk if we all work together to follow this simple guidance: wear a mask and stay six feet away from one another,” Redding said. “Privately owned stores have both followed guidance and orders from the state, and voluntarily implemented their own policies to keep everyone safe and as comfortable as possible. We applaud businesses that early in this crisis, committed to staying open, and offered special hours for vulnerable shoppers, outdoor shelter for those waiting in line to get into the store, and other extra measures. It shows how thoughtful businesses have been about public health.”

Retail workers have been among those hit hardest — even as they have worked through the crisis to keep stores open and shelves stocked. The least customers can do to contribute is to wear a mask.

“Our dedicated grocery, convenience store workers and distributors have been working tirelessly around the clock to provide food, beverages and essential household items for millions of Pennsylvanians,” Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association President and CEO Alex Baloga said. “We encourage customers to help do their part for essential workers by following the proper safety and social distancing guidelines from the Pennsylvania Department of Health and CDC.”

Putting it bluntly, wear a mask to protect workers and other shoppers from you — you could have the virus and not know it — and don’t be a selfish jerk and not wear a mask when out in public.

“Please be respectful to workers and fellow shoppers who may not be comfortable in public yet,” Redding said. “The best thing to do when you do go out in public is to be kind to one another, and continue to follow the simple public health rules that can literally save lives.”

The Stay at Home order and business shut down appear to be knocking down the virus, based on new numbers from the state Department of Health (DOH). DOH reported 707 new cases on Tuesday, bringing the state’s total to 58,698. More data reconciliation added 137 new deaths to the overall total of 3,943 to date.

Chester County Health reported just 23 new cases, for a total of 1,996. Eight new fatalities were reported, brining the county total to 197.

Meanwhile Gov. Tom Wolf announced Wednesday that the state will change how it counts the LGBTQ community in COVID-19 data.

As counties in the commonwealth move from the red stay-at-home order to the mitigation efforts of the yellow phase, DOH will be conducting extensive case histories investigations as part of contact tracing on those who test positive for the virus.

The department has chosen to work with Sara Alert, a new data collection platform and has requested a system modification to the platform to collect sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) data. The department is an early adopter of the technology and this system modification will provide for the platform to collect this data in all states and entities that use it moving forward.

The department has also requested from the eHealth Authority Board that the state’s six health information organizations work to capture sexual orientation and gender identity or expression data from electronic health records that can then be used by health care providers to report their COVID-19 data to the department.

Also on Wednesday, the state Liquor Control Board announced 155 more state stores will reopen in Yellow counties on May 15. As of that date, some 232 stores will be open on a limited in-store basis. Stores continue to curbside delivery for customers in Red counties, such as Chester.

The following mitigation efforts will be in place as these stores resume limited in-store public access:

  • Stores will limit the number of customers in a store at any time, allowing no more than 25 people (employees and customers) in any location and further restricting numbers of customers in smaller stores.
  • The first hour each store is open each day will be reserved for customers at high risk for COVID-19, including those 65 years of age and older. Voluntary compliance from all customers is encouraged in the interest of protecting the health and safety of our most vulnerable community members.
  • Customers and employees will be required to wear masks and practice social distancing, guided by signage throughout the stores.
  • Signage will also direct customers to follow one-way patterns to avoid cross-traffic and encourage them to refrain from touching products unless they intend to buy them.
  • Store employees will perform enhanced and frequent cleaning and disinfecting, and store hours will be modified to ensure appropriate time for cleaning and restocking.
  • All sales are final, and no returns will be accepted until further notice.

Prior to opening to the public, each location was professionally sanitized, and Plexiglas was installed at registers to provide a physical barrier between employees and customers at checkout. All Fine Wine & Good Spirits employees are being provided masks, gloves and frequent opportunities to wash hands. 

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