In the last few days, our social media feeds buzzed with messages about groceries being a major source of COVID-19 infection, including stories of COVID patients whose only point of possible contact with the virus seemed to be their visits to the supermarket. The news was alarming and whether completely accurate or not, many people prudently chose to avoid these establishments.
To quell the “grocery scare,” the Philippine General Hospital (PGH) felt the need to publish a statement on its Facebook page last April 5 affirming that “there is no such observed trend with our admitted COVID-19 (+) patients acquiring the illness from groceries.”
While the PGH statement does ring true, many people still feel uneasy about visiting the grocery, opting instead to purchase supplies through online grocery sites or delivery services. However, for various reasons (e.g. delayed deliveries, limited stocks, no Internet service available), many have no choice but to shop for food and household goods at their neighborhood groceries, despite the perceived risk. What then should we do to minimize the possibility of infection?
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Ensuring a safe shopping experience
With the Luzon-wide lockdown in effect, there are only a few remaining public spots that still allow gathering of crowds, namely wet markets, supermarkets, and drugstores. Major supermarkets have made it clear that they are taking this very seriously, and have implemented a number of prescribed practices to ensure the shopping experience is a safe one.
Here are examples of what is being done at most major supermarkets like Rustan’s, SM, Robinsons, Landmark, WalterMart, Unimart, S&R, Landers, among others:
Social distancing for all customers:
Regular sanitizing and disinfecting of the premises:
Requiring face masks for all employees:
Encouraging customers to wear face masks:
Placing sanitizers throughout the store for use by customers and workers:
While the social media pages of these supermarkets have publicized these guidelines, many netizens have also commented that these policies have not been implemented consistently across all supermarket branches. These include personnel not wearing masks, social distancing not being observed, among other comments. It is the customers themselves who are bringing these slip-ups to the attention of branch managers to make sure the public isn’t at increased risk.
While grocery shopping continues to be challenging, netizens have also commended cashiers, baggers, merchandisers, security guards, and other staff for their dedication to service customers, despite the risk to their health. Thankfully, supermarkets have been helping their staff weather the crisis, including providing shuttle services for employees, and offering other forms of assistance like lodging, free masks, alcohol, even vitamins.
The government response
On the government end, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) has addressed a number of supermarket-related issues related to the lockdown, namely hoarding and panic buying, price increases, as well as assistance for senior citizens.
Together with the Department of Agriculture (DA) and the Department of Health (DOH), DTI first issued a Joint Memorandum (Circular No. 2020-01) dated March 18 to ensure the implementation of a price freeze on basic necessities and prime commodities to last sixty (60) days from the official declaration of a State of Calamity on March 16. The DTI Consumer Protection Group is chartered with monitoring the price freeze, with violators to be penalized with fines and even possible imprisonment.
On March 19, DTI issued a Memorandum Circular (MC 20-07) instituting a limit in buying food and non-food products in order to prevent hoarding and panic buying during the enhanced community quarantine throughout Luzon. These items include instant noodles, canned sardines, milk in cans and powder, instant coffee, mineral water, as well as non-food products like bath soap, alcohol, sanitizer, disinfectant, toilet paper, and face masks. The Memorandum also protects against unreasonable price increases in basic goods, including health-related items like face masks, sanitizers, and disinfectants.
The DTI then issued another Memorandum Circular (MC 20-09) on March 28, this time protecting senior citizens by requiring establishments to give them priority. The DTI states, “The Department also acknowledges that there are senior citizens who are living alone and are given no choice but to secure personal provisions such as food, medicines, and other basic necessities and essential items for themselves. These are the senior citizens that MC 20-09 intends to serve. Through this policy issuance, we are requiring the business establishments to provide them with assistance and give due preference to ensure that they secure their needs quickly, thus making their stay outside their homes kept at the absolute minimum.”
According to a press release last March 30, DTI Secretary Ramon Lopez has been actively monitoring prices of goods, including seizing over P15 million worth of goods like alcohol, hand sanitizers, face masks in various operations around the country. “We continue to warn establishments against raising their prices and taking advantage of the COVID-19 situation,” reported Secretary Lopez. The DTI asks consumers to call its hotline 1384 (or 1-DTI) to report any infractions.
In the meantime, we go back to our original question: is it safe to shop at groceries? Yes it should be, as long as you wear a face mask and practice the following precautions, as listed in PGH’s earlier announcement:
1. Social distancing
2. Frequent hand washing
3. Applying alcohol to hands immediately after touching potentially contaminated items (e.g. door knobs, peso bills, telephones, computer keyboards, elevator buttons, ATM machines, grocery items, etc.)
4. Refraining from touching the face at all times
And make sure to change your outside clothes and sanitize your groceries as soon as you arrive home.