Although independent grocers have been deemed essential and allowed to remain open throughout Governor Jay Inslee’s statewide restrictions that have been in place for most of 2020, the industry faces a variety of challenges that include growing shopper frustration as stores adjust to Inslee’s the new restrictions.
With reports of people entering stores without masks as a form of protest, Washington Food Industry Association (WFIA) CEO and President Tammie Hetrick is urging shoppers in Washington to avoid taking out their anger on business owners.
“You’re really picking on the wrong people here,” she said. “Tensions are high. People are frustrated, the mask mandate is challenging. We’re thankful to be open and essential, and we’re just trying to do the best that we can.”
WFIA represents independent grocers that, like big chain grocery stores, operate on very low profit margins. Hetrick said that complying with the governor’s restrictions is difficult for small stores that have to add COVID-19 health compliance on top of their regular workload.
“In our smaller stores, they can’t afford to have people do that,” she said.
Independent stores also don’t have the capability to accept online payment through federal assistance such as the WIC (Women, Infant and Children) program and Snap (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), though she said they’re working on changing that.
As to how the restrictions impact grocers, Hetrick said it depends on the region. That’s the case with independent grocer Ali Hayton, who owns a grocery store in Mt. Vernon and another in Point Roberts – a pene-exclave that has yet to see a single COVID19 case. It’s also only accessible by ferry or by crossing the Canadian border through British Columbia.
Hayton told Lens that business has been hit particularly bad at Point Roberts due to the closed borders. Although it is the only grocery store there, it relies heavily on Canadian shoppers. Typically, the Point Roberts store experiences 5,000-8,000 customers a week around this time of year, but now only sees 1,500 customers.
However, she said that her Mt. Vernon store has fared much better, adding that weekly calls hosted by the WFIA have helped greatly. “We share ideas with other members and how you deal with this (problem) when you’re confronted (with it). It’s nice to know they have our backs and helping us navigate this. The rules change like the weather here.”
She said it hasn’t experienced in-store protesters, and most customers comply with the restrictions such as face masks.
Instead, she said the problem has been “’Karens’ not minding their own business and causing more trouble than the person without the mask,” adding that those not wearing a mask in her stores have valid medical reasons for doing so. To avoid further conflict, she’s created medical exemption signs that customers can hang over the side of their carts.
While both employees and customers have complied, helping her stores avoid fines, Hayton said that policy ambiguity and inconsistency isn’t helping those who have to enforce them. Having policymakers like California Governor Gavin Newsom violate their own rules doesn’t help either, she said.
“Nobody trusts what we’re being told,” she said. “First, we’re being told masks don’t work, then we’re being told to wear them. It’s kind of arbitrary. You’re kind of getting a little too far into people’s personal space.”
Regardless of how people feel about the restrictions or mask mandate, Hetrick reiterated that grocers were not involved in policymaking and face fines of around $10,000 if found in violation. In a statement she wrote: “Shoppers: Please do not take your frustrations out on store employees, who are just doing their jobs,” and hopes customers will take heed.