(4/17) UPDATE: Triad City Beat received an email from a spokesperson that said that all Whole Foods locations installed plexiglass barriers on March 26 and all stores are using disinfecting cleaner to wipe down frequently-touched surfaces. The spokesperson also confirmed that the Greensboro location has not undergone an overnight deep-cleaning since an employee tested positive for COVID-19.

(4/16) UPDATE: Triad City Beat received an email from a regional staff member confirming that an employee at the Greensboro Whole Foods tested positive for COVID-19.

Employees at the Whole Foods in Greensboro say that a coworker tested positive for COVID-19 but that the store is not taking the necessary measures to keep employees and customers safe.

Two employees say that a fellow worker at a Whole Foods store in Greensboro recently tested positive for COVID-19, but that lack of transparency from management and lax sanitation protocols are putting them and customers at risk.

Both employees spoke to Triad City Beat on condition of anonymity based on the fear they would lose their jobs at the grocery store chain if their identities were known. They said they decided to speak out after they viewed what they consider to be a lack of responsibility and a prioritization of profits over people in the days after the confirmed case was revealed.

Both said they were told by management that an employee had tested positive for COVID-19, and that the infected employee was sent home, along with other team members that had come into contact with them. The employees said they were not told which department the infected employee worked in.

Update (4/16): A regional staff member emailed TCB to confirm that there was an employee who tested positive at the Greensboro location but could not share any other details about the employee.

“They said that somebody had gotten diagnosed and that their last workday was April 3,” said Employee No. 1. “They said that they were gone for two weeks with pay and that if we have concerns, that we can talk to him.”

While some precautionary measures have been taken at the store, like closing the hot-food bars, laying down tape for social distancing and hanging signs that urge people to maintain a safe distance from each other and wiping down frequently-touched surfaces, the employee said that it’s not enough and that they want to see the store be deep-cleaned.

Signs at the Whole Foods in Greensboro encourage people to walk in one direction to eliminate contact with other customers. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

Other Whole Foods stores, including those in San Francisco and Tallahassee, Fla., that have reported confirmed COVID-19 cases among their staff, have typically closed the store and done a deep clean of the entire facility. But both employees who spoke to TCB said that no such measures have been taken at the Greensboro location.

Update (4/17): On Friday, TCB received an email from a spokesperson that “additional sanitation measures were taken at the end of the day, but not in the form of an overnight cleaning by a third party.”

Other recent measures implemented at the store include having all employees wear masks. On Tuesday, all visible employees wore some type of fabric mask while others also wore gloves. The store also installed plexiglass barriers at registers for every Whole Foods location on March 26. Ingress and egress is regulated by two employees who are directing one-way traffic and using wipes to clean the carts and baskets.

An employee makes sure that customers walk into the store in a one-way direction. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

But both employees who spoke out said that up until recently, staff had been discouraged from wearing masks even if they wanted to because it would “scare customers.”

“They told us that we had to get a doctor’s note to wear a mask,” Employee No. 1 said. “You had to potentially put yourself at risk to go to the doctor just so you could keep yourself safe at work.”

“Employees with pre-existing conditions either couldn’t work with a mask or had to stay home,” added Employee No. 2.

Now, both employees said, all staff members at the store are undergoing temperature checks at the beginning of their shifts.

Update (4/17): The spokesperson also stated in an email to TCB that “in addition to requiring daily temperature checks and masks in our stores, [they] are also offering personal face shields to all Whole Foods Market Team Members and Prime Now shoppers as an optional, protective measure.” Staff are also getting paid an additional $2 per hour but the employees say that the uncertainty makes it hard to feel safe at work.

Cash registers have “sneezeguard” shields installed at them. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

“We don’t know what surfaces were touched,” said Employee No. 1. “They increased everybody’s wages by $2 per hour, but you have to put yourself at risk.”

According to the Whole Foods website, workers also receive double their regular base rate of pay for overtime hours through May 3 but those who decide to stay home during this time do not get paid unless that have accrued vacation time.

“I’ve had coworkers text me saying, ‘If I didn’t have to, I wouldn’t be here right now,’ said Employee No. 1. “It makes you feel like crying, just being so essential but being at the bottom of the totem pole.”

The slow responses by management and fears for their safety have caused many of the national grocery chain’s workers to unite online.

A grassroots online group called Whole Workers created a Google Doc that lists all of the COVID-19 cases that have been mentioned and reported in Whole Foods stores across the United States in recent weeks. According to the document, there have been 158 cases and 103 stores affected, divined from data collected through news reports as well as employee posts on social media. The document claims that there have been four cases in North Carolina, including the one in Greensboro, though TCB could not confirm the other three through news reports.

In addition to keeping track of the number of cases popping up in stores across the country, the grassroots organization also posted a list of suggested action items that Whole Foods workers should take in the midst of the pandemic. The list includes questions like whether the store has proper PPE, soap and cleaning protocols, or if they allow employees to wear masks and gloves.

Lines encouraging customers to social distance are taped to the floor. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

The two employees who spoke to TCB said sales at the Greensboro store grew exponentially in the weeks after COVID-19 began spreading to North Carolina. That includes Prime grocery orders as well.

According to Employee No. 2, sales for Prime orders — which allow shoppers to get groceries and other items delivered by placing orders online — went up by about 150 to 200 percent.

“When the first week of COVID-19 paranoia hit the States, our Prime orders were backed up maybe 30 to 50 orders at a time,” Employee No. 1 said. “Orders ranged from 19 to 90 items.”

The increased volume of outgoing orders, in addition to more shoppers in the store, has raised concerns at other Whole Foods stores across the country.

A March study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that COVID-19 is detectable for up to 24 hours on cardboard and longer on plastic and steel.

“This virus is quite transmissible through relatively casual contact, making this pathogen very hard to contain,” said James Lloyd-Smith, a co-author of the study and a UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. “If you’re touching items that someone else has recently handled, be aware they could be contaminated, and wash your hands.”

A sign with Whole Foods’ updated rules. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

Recently, a woman in Charlotte, who hadn’t left her house in three weeks tested positive for COVID-19 after bringing in groceries dropped off by a friend, according to news reports by WCNC and The New York Post. While cases like hers have been rare, employees at Whole Foods say it’s a risk that customers should know about, especially if the store has had a confirmed case.

“I don’t want all these people coming in thinking they are safe when they’re not,” Employee No. 1 said. “People could die.”

When asked what they want the store to do to keep it safe, Employee No. 1 said that it “feels too little too late.”

“The comfort would come from knowing that they cared enough about our safety and the safety of customers enough to fumigate as soon as they found out,” they said. “I think they owe at minimum the people that have been working there after knowing there’s been a diagnosis a bonus of some nature. An extra $2 per hour for ‘hazard pay’ isn’t enough after people have been potentially exposed.

“Bottom line, they don’t want people to stop coming to Whole Foods,” said Employee No. 1. “At this point, they’d rather just get the business.”

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