As the elderly have emerged as a category of vulnerable people most endangered by the coronavirus pandemic, store chains across the U.S. are announcing hours specifically dedicated to senior shoppers.
National chains including Stop & Shop and Dollar General have announced senior hours, as have many regional chains such as Zannoto’s Family Markets in San Jose, Calif., DeCicco & Sons in New York and Vista Supermarkets in El Paso, Texas. The announcements come as retailers across the country struggle to keep shelves stocked with food, sanitation products and other household goods like toilet paper — despite pleas from officials against hoarding and “panic buying.”
Stop & Shop, a grocery chain with more than 400 locations across north eastern states, said Monday that it would open stores early to accommodate people age 60 and older from 6:00-7:30 a.m. daily. Dollar General, which operates more than 15,000 stores in 44 states, will dedicate each store’s first hour open for business to seniors.
“During these unprecedented times, Dollar General is diligently working to meet the ongoing needs of our customers and communities,” Todd Vasos, Dollar General CEO, said in a public statement Monday. “We are proud to live our mission and provide customers with everyday low prices on the household essentials that are used and replenished most often.”
Other retailers, however, have said they would not implement senior hours and are instead encouraging online orders and curbside pickup. Popular Texas grocery store chain H-E-B told CNN Business that it made the decision not to implement senior hours after speaking with health officials.
“Our leadership team studied this option thoroughly and due to recommendations from health officials we have determined this is not the best and safest option for our customers,” the company said in a statement to CNN Business. “H-E-B takes care of Texas and we feel asking a group to congregate at our stores in a certain timeframe is not a safe idea.”
Felicia Wu, professor of food science and human nutrition at Michigan State University, tells TIME that, no matter what, there are risks associated with going out into locations where many people may gather.
“The safest option, if it is possible, is to have more vulnerable individuals… ask someone else who is not part of a vulnerable group to do the shopping for them,” Wu tells TIME in an emailed statement. “If that is not possible, then I do think it is a good idea for grocery stores to have dedicated hours that are for more vulnerable populations to shop — [times at] which there will be fewer people, and where cleaning can take place beforehand.”
Wu adds that stores should consider if the hours they’re dedicating are feasible for the elderly (as well as for other vulnerable groups of people, such as those who are immunocompromised or have chronic heart or lung diseases). Stores should also consider offering instructions about how far people should stay away from each other while shopping, wipe down counters and other surfaces before people arrive and provide sanitary wipes and hand sanitizer at the doors so that people can wipe their hands and their cart handles.
“To the workers who are cleaning these shopping areas, we are grateful,” Wu says. “These workers should wash their hands carefully beforehand and afterwards to ensure their own safety and the safety of others.”