Vons on the front line of COVID-19 pandemic

May 12, 2020
Food is essential for shoppers

By Peggy Kelly

Santa Paula Times

It’s not easy being on the front lines of a pandemic, especially when one of the basic essentials of life itself — food — is your business. But Vons in Santa Paula — the only major grocery store in the area — has not only handled the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is also a shining example of safety and customer service — literally.

“Before I could even take a cart, someone was making sure the grip was disinfected,” said a masked Sandi Montoya as she started to shop. “And then, when you leave, they won’t let you put your purchase down to be rung up until they clean and sanitize the belt,” a move repeated for the credit/debit-card machine.

Jenny Crandall, Southern California director of front-end operations for Albertsons, which owns Vons and Pavilion, said the 338 stores in her area all adhere to the same rules. “We have the same protocols, the same social distancing” and other guidelines implemented to raise the bar in fighting the spread of the virus.

COVID-10 was first reported in Ventura County on March 6. As of Wednesday there were more than 600 cases and 19 deaths from COVID-19 in Ventura County. As of May 1 — Day 98 of the virus in the state — there were 2,150 deaths and 52,318 COVID-19 cases reported. The state issued a shelter-at-home order March 19.

The pandemic is a disaster like no other, especially in California where earthquake has been the most feared threat.

“We always have preparations for potential emergencies, but this one is uncharted,” said Crandall. “You have to be flexible and nimble in your decisions, especially as things change by the hour,” a timeframe Crandall concedes wryly is “being generous.”

Santa Paula Vons Manager Frank Ibarra said the store’s 126 employees all wear masks and “we ask our customers to be respectful of others and wear a mask or covering” while shopping.

Education is key, said Crandall.

“That’s part of our job, to educate” the public so they can enjoy a safe shopping experience.

Such a goal has created social-distancing markers for checkout, overseen by a Vons employee who keeps the line moving while maintaining a 6-foot — or, as a sign notes, two-cart — distance from each other. All employees are screened daily to make sure no one is running a fever — a common symptom of COVID-19. And there are plenty of employees to test. Crandall said more have been hired to help during the added workload created by the pandemic and most are customers.

Ibarra agreed that about 75% of those working at Vons are customers, which gives them an edge when dealing with those who may be having a bad day. “Everybody is chaotic, some people are upside down” as their jobs are lost, businesses closed, and they are cut off from others, he noted. Even so, “so far, I would say 99% of the time,” everyone is pleasant and understanding of the social distancing as well as the one-way aisles. “People have their own shopping habits,” said Ibarra, and are used to wandering at will, but most comply good-naturedly. Good news is that the shortages have started to ease. “We’ve come back a good percentage” of those things that seemed to fly off the shelves in the panicky days of the stay-at-home orders.

During that time and continuing now is making sure there are not too many shoppers in the store at one time. “We have one way in and one way out,” Crandall said. “When we feel we’ve reached our limit,” customers are asked to line up outside.

“It’s like a water faucet,” said Ibarra. “If it’s full blast, you turn it down.”

All measures, said Crandall, are in the interest of keeping Vons staff and customers safe from the coronavirus. The sole responsibility of many of those hired in recent weeks is cleaning and sanitizing. “They’re wiping down all the time,” she said.

“Touch points,” said Ibarra, such as handles on freezer doors, countertops, basket handles, cart grips and, of course, checkout stands and card machines are constantly wiped with sanitizer and re-wiped. “We want to make sure everyone is safe, and make sure they feel safe,” said Ibarra. “Santa Paula is a small community and we take care of our community.” As an example, he said Vons employee Michelle Thomas has been taking orders for senior customers, shops for them, and then delivers to them.

“It really is times like these,” Crandall noted, “that you really see the good in people.”

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