By: Tanya Wadekar (Correspondent)
With more than a million US cases and counting in the short span of around 4 months, the coronavirus has disrupted daily life — especially for elderly Americans.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) mentioned that the virus could be fatal for older adults, especially those older than the age of 80. Coronavirus affects the immune system, so older adults and people with underlying health conditions are at a greater risk of contracting COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. This is why a growing number of stores are starting “senior hours,” a time when adults over the age of 60, pregnant women, people with any underlying conditions, or any other people who are more susceptible to this virus can have less crowded and cleaner stores to shop in, to lessen the risk of them contracting the virus.
Supermarkets are trying their hardest to give us a safe environment during this time according to Alina Selyukh, a journalist for NPR. “Supermarkets are restricting their opening hours to give workers time for cleaning and restocking. They’re also limiting how many items people are allowed to buy. And they’re adding specially designated hours when only seniors and others most vulnerable to the coronavirus are invited to shop,” said Selyukh.
The “senior hours” started at Dollar General locations mid-March. Dollar General’s first opening hour will be dedicated to seniors. Dollar General wants to accommodate seniors in this difficult time by helping them shop in a less busy environment, says company spokeswoman Crystal Ghassemi. “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,” said Ghassemi.
Below are the latest updates in popular supermarket chains:
Walmart: Our largest U.S retailer, Walmart, is giving a “senior hour” every Tuesday until April 28. This hour applies to seniors and those more vulnerable who will be given exclusive access to materials one hour before opening. Dacona Smith, the Chief Operating Officer of Walmart said: “it’s temporarily closing Auto Care Centers and imposing per-person restrictions on paper products, milk, eggs, cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer, water, diapers, wipes, formula, and baby food.”
Target: All Target locations are giving the first hour of shopping on Wednesdays to “vulnerable guests- including the elderly and those with underlying health concerns.” The company is urging others to plan their shopping outside of that time.The retailer is also shortening its open hours, closing all stores at 9 p.m. They are also enforcing limits on how many items of high-demand products one shopper can buy.
Whole Foods: Amazon’s supermarket chain is giving a “senior hour” before each store’s official opening time for people 60 and older. Whole Foods also says its locations will close to the public “up to two hours early,” though they will continue to remain open for pickup and Amazon Prime delivery.
Stop & Shop: These stores are opening an hour early to let people over 60 and with weakened immune systems to shop from 6 to 7:30 am. The company also states that the supermarkets will have shorter hours, closing at 8 pm and opening at 7:30 am for the general public and they are limiting per-person purchases of cleaning and sanitizing supplies. They are strongly encouraging shoppers just to buy what they need.
Many other retailers and malls also are either restricting their hours or temporarily closing. Retail Dive, a trade publication, is keeping an updated list here.
The special senior hours at stores are meant to provide a safe environment for older customers and consumers with weakened immune systems, but experts are questioning how safe the environments really are.
Alysa Krain, an infectious disease doctor who specializes in geriatric medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine states that experts are having concerns about large numbers of seniors congregating together so the senior hours make her somewhat nervous.
“It was a good idea in general, but it’s a little bit dangerous if it’s not controlled,” said Krain.
Krain adds that stores should still ensure that seniors keep at least six feet between them and other people, and they should dissuade crowds above 50 people.
Bettina Fries, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Medicine, agreed about the concern of having a large number of seniors in a place, but saw the potential for this idea.
“I hope the scattered shopping hours would lead to seniors being in a store with fewer people,” she said. “It’s less likely that you will have [a] senior with coronavirus in a store because they’re less likely to be asymptomatic,” said Fries.
Not all grocery stores are giving senior hours. H-E-B, a San-Antonio-based supermarket with hundreds of locations throughout the Southwestern states and northern Mexico told CNN that it will not participate in such an hour based on recommendations from health officials.
“We feel asking a group to congregate at our stores in a certain time frame is not a safe idea,” the company told CNN.
Lateshia Beachum, a journalist for Washington posts adds that there are alternate, safer options for those at-risk in need of supplies. “Grocery stores could also offer delivery services to seniors, an option Stop and Shop has, and take phone orders to accommodate technological challenges,” said Beachum.
“Community members could pitch in by delivering groceries to their senior neighbors as the country grapples with reducing infection through social distancing,” said Beachum.
Fries also talked about her concern about how we are handling things, with people still not taking the virus seriously. “Western countries are struggling much more. Think about how many people don’t evacuate during hurricane season,” she said, adding that young and old people should stay inside as much as possible.
Health experts are still recommending that people should not visit public places unless absolutely necessary. Federal officials also are advising against gatherings of 10 or more people.