Coronavirus Cases at D.C. Whole Foods Highlight Risks Facing Grocery Workers

WASHINGTON — An outbreak of coronavirus infections at an upscale Whole Foods in the heart of the nation’s capital has focused attention on the plight of grocery store workers deemed essential to stay on the job during the pandemic but increasingly falling ill to its ravages.

The Whole Foods near Washington’s trendy Logan Circle told employees on Wednesday that a worker had contracted the virus, one of at least six, but that the store would not close, according to a report by WUSA, a local CBS-affiliated station. Instead, managers would order a deep cleaning with workers staying on the job, according to an email sent to employees that was obtained by the station.

Workers were free to take leave without penalty through the end of April, the email said, but it would be unpaid.

An employee at the store, who declined to be identified, passed a note to a New York Times photographer there on Tuesday stating that 16 employees at the location were confirmed to be infected, a significant outbreak in a city that has so far escaped the horrors of New York, Detroit and New Orleans.

In an email, a spokesman for Whole Foods confirmed that the store had “multiple team members” with diagnoses of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, but that the site had “undergone multiple deep cleanings and disinfections” overnight in recent days that allowed it to remain open during regular business hours.

Another Whole Foods location in Washington’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood was previously closed to the public for cleaning after a worker tested positive for the virus, but the company’s spokesman said the closure was warranted only because overnight cleaning was not available.

Such problems are not isolated. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents over 900,000 grocery workers nationwide, estimated on Monday that 30 of its members had died from Covid-19 and another 3,000 had taken sick days after showing signs of illness or other possible coronavirus-related complications. The union also said that in a survey of 5,000 of its members, 85 percent said customers in their stores were not practicing social distancing as recommended.

Though Washington has not had the dramas of other cities, it is considered an emerging hot spot, with nearly 2,200 infections and 72 deaths. Its rate of infection, measured against the district’s small population, is above average compared with the states.

The city has required essential businesses to take a variety of steps to enforce social distancing, sending food retailers rushing to install trappings like hand sanitizer stations, plexiglass barriers between workers and customers, and floor stickers marking the government-recommended six-foot separation distance.

However, the protocols largely leave it to stores themselves to enforce other guidelines such as the requirement that patrons to wear masks while shopping. More serious measures like closures of essential stores have also been left to management.

At another Whole Foods location in the city’s H Street corridor, foot traffic in and out of the store was funneled to a single entrance, where a guard was stationed to turn away shoppers without a mask.

Last week, officials at the daily White House task force briefing began listing Washington as one of the cities most likely to see a spike in coronavirus cases over the coming weeks, alongside Baltimore and Philadelphia.

As cases have increased, local officials have been forced to balance efforts to enforce public health initiatives with the need to ensure access to groceries.

On April 8, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser issued an order effectively shutting down farmers markets and seafood vendors in the city until they can submit individual social distancing plans and receive approval from the government. On Wednesday, Ms. Bowser issued another order requiring all workers and customers of food sellers to wear masks and extending the city’s state of emergency through May 15.

Earlier this month, a Trader Joe’s store in Washington temporarily closed for cleaning after an employee tested positive. The retailer lists at least 18 future closings at other locations around the country on a running list on its website.

A spokeswoman for the Washington’s Health Department said essential businesses were not legally required to make a public disclosure about whether employees had tested positive for the virus. But according to protocols, retailers that do not comply with the mayor’s order could face civil penalties and license revocations.

The danger associated with working in grocery stores that see hundreds of shoppers each day has led to protests from workers involved in getting groceries to consumers. Last month, employees of Whole Foods and workers who fulfill orders for the grocery delivery service Instacart organized strikes over what they described as hazardous working conditions and insufficient protections.

Marc Perrone, the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, said many workers have been forced to make do with limited protective gear as masks and other personal protective equipment, or P.P.E., have been diverted to medical workers and others dealing directly with people who are already symptomatic or known to be exposed to the virus.

“Masks and P.P.E. ultimately went to first responders first, and then highest bidders,” Mr. Perrone said. “Some of our employers that we deal with lost shipments that were sent to other countries.”

But Mr. Perrone stressed that grocery store workers still come into contact with scores of shoppers on a daily basis, many of whom may be asymptomatic carriers.

Whole Foods employees are not represented by the union, but a coalition of employees who staged a “sickout” to protest working conditions in March have planned another protest on May 1, according to The Guardian.

The dilemma facing grocery stores comes amid a larger debate between policymakers and public health experts about how quickly to relax social distancing guidelines in the interest of spurring economic activity.

On Tuesday, Representative Trey Hollingsworth, Republican of Indiana, joined other lawmakers calling for a return to more normalcy, telling an Indianapolis radio station that deciding between continuing the stay-at-home orders and getting people back to school and work would be up to Congress.

“It is not zero evil, but it is the lesser of these evils and we intend to move forward in that direction,” he said. “That is our responsibility, and to abdicate that is to insult the Americans that voted us into office.”