Observations from a shopping trip to Safeway on El Camino Real

by Linda Hubbard on March 26, 2020

We’ve not been to the Safeway on El Camino in Menlo Park since the shelter-in-place order was issued on March 16. Our experience this morning is that the staff there is working hard to provide a system that helps people practice social distancing while getting shoppers out of the store as quickly as possible.

After filling your basket, you line up in one long line that is marked with blue lines, that keeps you six feet apart from the next customer. There’s staff at the head of the line who directs you to the next available checker. There is hand sanitization on the check stand and by the door. It was all efficient and orderly and avoided jam-packed lines behind each register.

As with other local supermarkets, there are limits on the number of the most sought after products (usually two per customer) with staff monitoring the quantities people were putting in their cart.

It was surprising to see the number of people wearing face masks (unless they are all sick, and that would be darn scary) given directives from the CDC and County.

From the San Mateo County Health Department: “Good hand washing techniques are the most effective ways to prevent illness. This means washing your hands often with soap and water and rubbing vigorously for at least 20 seconds. If you have a fever or are actively coughing, a face mask is recommended to prevent spread of germs to others around you. If you choose to wear a face mask even if not ill, it is important to understand that face masks are not a substitute for hand washing, which, again, is the most effective way to prevent illness.”

Update: Here’s growing evidence that masks can be an additional tool in curbing the pandemic; see this story from the New York Times.



Mary March 26, 2020 at 2:06 pm

Thank you for this post. I too was at Safeway today and the people wearing masks was a bit scary—only sick people should wear masks. If healthy people wear masks, that depletes the ones that would be available for those who ARE sick or hospital workers. I didn’t see any toilet paper (and I don’t know if they had a 1 per customer rule going). Downtown Walgreens does have toilet paper with a 1 per customer limit. I wish all stores would do this to prevent hoarding. I also posted this same info on Nextdoor.

Katie March 28, 2020 at 6:49 pm

Mary, the challenge with the “only sick people should wear masks” dictum is we don’t know who is sick. In Iceland recently they determined that 50% of those who tested positive for COVID-19 displayed no symptoms. https://www.buzzfeed.com/albertonardelli/coronavirus-testing-iceland

And scientists looking at the Wuhan outbreak think that silent spreading from asymptomatic people played a big role: https://science.sciencemag.org/content/early/2020/03/24/science.abb3221

Because the virus is droplet-born, even people talking to each other within a six foot radius can in theory transmit it to each other. This is why even people not showing symptoms are supposed to be social distancing and sheltering at home.

But think through going to the pharmacy or supermarket. Are you really six feet away from the cashier? from the person giving you your meds? Could one of you be a carrier and not know it? This is why wearing some kind of covering over your mouth and nose is prudent for these sorts of excursions.

Cathleen March 26, 2020 at 2:43 pm

FYI, I understand the concern about the general public using face masks that would better serve healthcare workers. There is also a legitimate need For those with compromised immune systems to take this precaution.
More importantly, Safeway has toilet paper every morning (per Asst. manager and personal experience). Get there early and you’ll see it (limit 2 pkgs).

MPmom March 26, 2020 at 5:04 pm

My husband is immunocompromised so, yeah, I wear a mask when I shop for our family. I can’t afford to get sick because he must never get sick. Even if I don’t become ill, I can’t afford to carry the virus home to him. I go through a whole “entering the clean room” process when I get home with my bags from downtown. And I am *not* taking masks away from health care workers. We already had a stash at home in preparation for “fire season,” which seems to be a new fifth season in California that overlaps summer and fall. Masks are a necessary part of our lives now, and will remain so after this pandemic leaves the headlines.

So if you see a “healthy” person in a mask, don’t judge so harshly. You can’t know their story, or their burden, just by observing them or their behavior.

Katharine Sherwin March 26, 2020 at 5:10 pm

Actually, there could be a great deal of benefit to the community if EVERYONE wore masks. The Czech Republic went from zero mask usage to 100% in 10 days, and in the process they halted the growth of new Covid-19 cases, using mostly home made masks. More information and details here: https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1242894378441506816.html

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