County commissioners want more protection for frontline workers


Alachua County Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler wants employees working on the front lines of local businesses deemed essential to be better protected from exposure to COVID-19.

During an emergency county meeting on March 24th Wheeler relayed to the commission that she had received emails and phone calls from employees sharing concerns for lack of spacing of customers and lack of personal protective equipment (PPE).

“I had concern voiced to me,” Wheeler said during the open comment portion of the meeting that was live streamed to a record number of 8,000 viewers. 

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“The employees working at these places are vulnerable because they are on the front line and probably need some protective gear. I have been concerned whether the folks who are required to work are comfortable.”

Wheeler said she wanted retail employees to be recognized as front-line responders to the COVID-19 pandemic and that they should be protected just as medical responders are.

County Commission Chair Robert Hutchinson said he had a number of people contact him saying ‘it’s not safe, but if they go home they get fired.’

Hutchinson said he was concerned about construction sites adhering to CDC standards in sharing tools and cleaning portable restrooms in between use. He added that the health department points to portable toilets as “the place to get the virus.”

During the discussion that followed, commissioners debated whether to reconsider the retail customer capacity issued in the stay-at-home order that went into effect on March 24th at 12:01 a.m. As it stands, retail spaces can allow a maximum of one customer per 1,000 square feet retail space into the store. A 30,000 square-foot-store could hold 30 customers at a time.

Grocery, hardware and other essential retail businesses in Alachua County continue to adjust to the requirement. 

 On March 25th, Lowe’s of Butler Plaza placed large Xs six feet apart in blue tape along the sidewalk to mark where customer can stand as they wait to enter. There is one entrance and one exit established now at that location.

Starting this weekend, Publix will install extra protection at the checkouts and pharmacies.

“We will be installing plexiglass companywide at our registers, customer service desks and pharmacies,” Publix Director of Communications Maria Brous said.

“Installations will begin this weekend, and we expect to conclude within the next two weeks.”

As for other PPE such as gloves or face masks, Brous referred to federal guidelines.

“We continue to follow the FDA and CDC guidance regarding face masks and gloves,” she said. “Both are considered personal protective equipment (PPE).  They are in very high demand, especially for those working in the health care industry.  The FDA and CDC do not recommend facemasks for those working in the food industry.  If one is sick, then he/she should stay home. 

“Regarding gloves, these need to be used in areas based on food handling positions or where PPE is required.  Both agencies recommend continued focus on good hand hygiene, including proper hand washing and use of hand sanitizer.”

Those CDC guidelines for businesses to help employees avoid exposure to COVID-19 are :

-Increasing physical space between employees at the worksite

-Increasing physical space between employees and customers (e.g., drive through, partitions)

-Implementing flexible meeting and travel options (e.g., postpone non-essential meetings or events)

-Downsizing operations

-Delivering services remotely (e.g. phone, video, or web)

-Delivering products through curbside pick-up or delivery

-Avoid close contact with people who are sick

-Put distance between yourself and other people if COVID-19 is spreading in your community. This is especially important for people who are at higher risk of getting very sick.

-Educating employees to clean hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds especially after you have been in a public place, or after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. And reminding employees to “avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.”

According to a Publix news release issued on March 23, an associate recently tested positive at Cruse Marketplace, 1735 Buford Highway, in Cumming, Georgia.

 The store has completed a disinfection-level deep cleaning of the store in accordance with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Georgia Department of Agriculture and Georgia Department of Public Health, the report states.

 As part of Publix’s general response to COVID-19, the company had already implemented a heightened disinfection program focusing on high-touch surfaces like touch pads, door and drawer handles, phones and computers. It has also taken in-store measures, such as suspending food demonstrations, to focus on the health and safety of its associates, customers and community. Additionally, to allow time to conduct additional preventive sanitation and restock product on shelves for the next day, Publix adjusted store hours (8 a.m. to 8 p.m. in all stores). Stores added a designated senior shopping hour on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7 a.m., which included Publix Pharmacy, to best serve its customers.

 Chair Hutchinson said he is against relaxing the customer to square foot ratio. The commissioners are also exploring ways to promote InstaCart shopping that allows customers to place and pay for their grocery order online and avoid shopping in person.

 “Folks we are trying to discourage people from going shopping,” he said. “You go once, get what you need and get out of there.”

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