There is something new in some of the grocery and convenience stores that remain open in Boone County as it deals with the coronavirus pandemic — plexiglass shields at checkout counters.


Two of the first area retailers to install the shields are BreakTime convenience stores and Kansas-based grocery chain Gerbes.


The move aligns the two companies with retailers across the country attempting to slow novel coronavirus community spread.


“The safety of our associates and customers is not just a priority for us, it’s one of our core values,” Gerbes CEO Randy McMullen said. “We are ... installing plexiglass partitions at check stands and other locations through the store.”


Shielding will be installed at checkout lanes, including those at Starbucks registers and pharmacy counters, according to Gerbes’ website. The shielding will be accompanied by floor decals that will indicate CDC social distancing guidelines, encouraging customers to stand 6 feet apart when waiting in line.


Beyond physical shielding, Kroger-owned Gerbes locations are taking additional steps to protect the public by increasing sanitation and cleaning requirements, and by updating store hours to allow vulnerable populations to shop at select times.


Temporary pay increases and emergency sick leave programs have also been extended to workers.


“Kroger has enacted emergency leave guidelines, allowing paid time off for associates diagnosed with COVID-19 and placed under mandatory quarantine,” according to Gerbes’ announcement.


Workers will receive 14 days of their standard pay as paid sick leave, the announcement said.


“Associates are on the front lines, ensuring Americans have access to the food, services and products that they need during this unprecedented pandemic,” McMullen said. “We are committed to protecting the health and safety of our associates.”


Between March 29 and April 18, workers will also receive a $2 an hour increase to their normal wages.


Gerbes did not return requests for comment.


MFA Oil — a farmer-owned Missouri cooperative based in Columbia, which owns more 70 BreakTime locations — took inspiration from local grocery stores and began installing its own shielding to promote safety.


“We looked at the plexiglass as just another step we can take because we have a large volume of customers in our stores,” said Curtis Chaney, MFA Oil’s senior vice present of retail. “We felt like that was really something good for both our customers and employees.”


Shielding was constructed at MFA Oil’s business support center in Moberly, where the company usually manufactures its trucks, and then distributed to BreakTime locations, he said.


Safety is a concern at BreakTime locations, Chaney said. An emphasis on sanitation is being increased — with a focus on high contact surfaces — and pay incentives are being extended to all employees.


“We keep taking these measures, because we’ve been declared an essential retailer,” he said. “We’re constantly looking at what the CDC suggests and what our company does, and we want to maintain our stores for our customers and a safe working environment for our employees.”


BreakTime increased pay for all workers in March as a recognition by MFA Oil that employees are public-facing and should be rewarded for their work, Chaney added.


The pay increase ends May 2.


The move by Gerbes and MFA Oil to boost public safety and incentivize workers is a trend seen nationwide. They join retailers such as Walmart, Hy-Vee, Amazon, Target and CVS in the push to retain and reward workers historically undervalued and underpaid, but who suddenly find themselves designated as an essential American workforce amid a growing coronavirus pandemic.


But will these short-term pay increases and policy changes temper the safety concerns of a workforce that realizes its own growing importance?


Amazon warehouse workers in New York, and Whole Foods workers and Instacart food delivery drivers nationwide, have begun protesting over safety concerns at their respective employers.


During their national “sick-out” protest, Whole Foods workers demanded more than the temporary $2 per hour bonus — guaranteed sick leave, hazard pay, and the reinstatement of health care coverage for part-time and seasonal workers.


Those workers have cited increased anxiety over increased risks for contracting COVID-19 as the Centers for Disease Control announced March 30 that as many as 1 in 4 Americans could be carrying the virus symptom-free, and as U.S. infections and deaths continue to increase.


“It’s just, ‘we’re all in this together,’ is the phrase going around,” Chaney said. “And we just try to make our environment safe for our customers and employees both.”


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