Groceries working tirelessly to keep shelves stocked during COVID-19

Stores adjusting hours, services to better serve their customers

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GREEN COVE SPRINGS – Mike Finnick stopped to check his watch last Friday, knowing his next truckload of groceries should be at the back door of his Winn-Dixie store in less than 10 minutes.

Finnick can’t remember being so busy. And fulfilled.

Customers, many wearing masks, still are shopping. Keeping shelves stock has become a never-ending job, but one Finnick embraces.

“I’ve been here [at Winn-Dixie] for 42 years. I’ve been through hurricanes, and I went through Y2K, which panicked everybody to stock up,” the store manager said. “This has been rewarding because we’re doing a lot of good. It’s fun when you’re helping.”

Grocery and liquor stores are changing hours and adding protective shields to better serve their customers – and protect their employees – during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stores like Winn-Dixie, Publix, Walmart, Walmart Neighborhood Market and The Fresh Market are working tirelessly to stock shelves and provide a safe environment during a time when many residents have been told not to leave their homes.

Winn-Dixie, Publix and ABC Fine Wine and Spirits already have installed Plexiglass shields at most of their registers.

“Our customers like [the Plexiglass]; our cashiers love it,” Finnick said.

ABC was quick to the shields as a response to the virus that’s easily spread by contact, sneezes and coughs.

“We have a woodshop in Orlando, and they made enough shields in one night for 125 stores,” one assistant manager said. “We got them up right away.”

Liquor stores reported an unprecedented rush in mid-March when restrictions and cancelations were announced by federal, state and local officials.

The company has the following statement on its website: “Currently, all shelter-in-place orders allow ABC and our team members to continue working.”

And that means extra business.

“It’s been very busy here,” said one manager at Broudy’s on Fleming Island. “It was like the week before Christmas.”

Many of their customers were stocking up in case stores are ordered to close. However, in most jurisdictions, liquor stores provide “essential services” and aren’t be subject to closures like local bars, nightclubs and restaurants.

All stores have adjusted their hours to help elderly people complete their shopping early, to allow first responders to shop late and to provide extra time around the store for cleaning.

The Fresh Market now is open from 8 a.m.-9 p.m. During weekdays, the first hour of operation is limited to senior citizens who are considered the most vulnerable to catch the novel coronavirus.

“We ask that our other guests who do not fall into these categories respect these special hours for those who fall into the higher-risk categories as outlined by the CDC, so they can feel more comfortable shopping in our stores,” the store said in a company release.

The Fresh Market has also closed all café seating areas, and in states that have banned gatherings of no more than 50 people, we are monitoring the guest count in our stores to adhere to these guidelines.

Winn-Dixie, along with other stores in the Southeastern Grocers chain, has adjusted its hours to allow for senior citizens to shop from 8 a.m.-9 a.m. during the weekday. Store hours also have been extended an hour to 9 p.m. on Mondays and Tuesday for first responders.

“We’re very busy in that first hour,” Finnick said. “Usually we have one cashier when we open [at 8 a.m.]. Now we need five. It’s been very popular. That extra hour on Monday and Tuesday nights for first responders has been big, too. A lot of people in health care are working 12-hour shifts, 7-to-7, so this give them a chance to shop.”

“At Southeastern Grocers, we are a people-first company and we are dedicated to being there for the community when they need us most,” said company president and CEO Anthony Hucker. “Our first responders and healthcare providers are working extra-long hours to take care of the community and we want to do our part to take care of them. We ask that our customers be respectful of this time we have dedicated to our frontline warriors.”

Publix stores across the First Coast are closing two hours earlier at 8 p.m. Stores, including the pharmacy, are open for senior shopping from 7 a.m.-8 a.m. on Thursdays and Wednesdays.

Many Publix stores said customers often are waiting outside for the doors to open during their special shopping hours.

“As a company that started as a small business 90 years ago, Publix wants to help businesses renting from us survive the economic impact of these unexpected closures,” said Publix Director of Communications Maria Brous.

Companies that deliver produce have shifted their effort to keeping grocery stores stock with fresh fruits and vegetables.

“Business stopped for the companies that deliver produce to restaurants,” Finnick said. “My business increased, so we’re bringing in some outside resources.”

Most stores also have markings on the floor to remind shoppers to maintain a two-cart-distance from other shoppers and cashiers.

“Who knows when we will get back to normal,” Finnick said. “We’ll still be here.”

Walmart announced last weekend it would limit the number of customers to one for every 1,000-square-feet. At the Fleming Island store, that means capping the number of shoppers to about 200, while the Orange Park Walmart will allow about 203 customers.

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