California is home to big box stores that sell groceries, chain grocery stores, and specialty boutique grocers. Typically, a specialty grocer is locally and independently owned, oftentimes a family-owned business. 

Specialty grocers are considered essential businesses during the stay at home period associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, they are among the businesses that immediately must address the legal liability and duties associated with operating during the COVID-19 era. 

With these points in mind, a specialty grocer must consider a number of factors, including the application of what is known as the doctrine of premises liability. In addition, there are some specific strategies that a specialty grocer needs to enact to fulfill its legal duties during the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Entry control
  • Team member PPE
  • Team member ongoing education
  • Team and patron available sanitizer
  • Cashier stand and other POC shields
  • Coordinated instore pathways
  • Ongoing sanitization throughout premises
  • Proactive COVID-19 contamination prevention
  • Rapid COVID-19 contamination remediation

Legal Responsibilities of a Specialty Grocer in the COVID-19 Era

The owner of a specialty grocer in California bears a legal responsibility to workers and customers based on a legal concept known as the doctrine of premises liability. The doctrine of premises liability is the legal principle that an owner or tenant with control over property – like the owner and operator of a specialty grocery market – must take reasonable steps to keep people who enter into the property safe. 

Applying the doctrine of premises liability in the COVID-19 era, a grocer has the legal duty to take all reasonable steps to prevent coronavirus contamination in a store. On a related note, a specialty grocer must rapidly respond to a suspected COVID-19 contamination in a store. 

Entry Control

One of the key strategies that have been at the heart of controlling the spread of COVID-19 is what initially was called social distancing. In fact, the better term really is physical distancing. Growing out of the need for physical distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19 became the stay at home mandates and the temporary closure of certain types of businesses.

One practice that a specialty grocer should adopt when it comes to satisfying its legal duty to keep workers and patrons safe during the COVID-19 pandemic is what best can be called entry control. 

A specialty grocer (and other merchants, for that matter) needs to regulate the number of people that are inside a store at any specific moment in time. The number of people permitted in a store needs to abide by the physical distancing recommendations. Specifically, attention must be paid to any directives regarding the total number of people that can be in a public space at any given point in time. An entry control protocol needs to take into account the need for patrons and workers the ability to remain at least six feet away from everyone in a store at any moment in time. 

Team Member PPE

Another specific tactic a specialty grocer must adopt is for all team members to have appropriate personal protective equipment suitable for their job duties at all times. At a minimum, this means that all team members should have a mask and gloves at all times.

As an aside, the state of California has directed all citizens to wear a mask when out in public. This directive certainly is not being universally followed. With that said, it is well within the province of a specialty grocer or other retailer to mandate customers, vendors, and others who desire to enter the premises to only do so if wearing a mask.

Team Member Ongoing Education

Information about COVID-19 and associated best practices has been and remains in a state of flux. COVID-19 is also referred to as a novel coronavirus because it’s a “new” pathogen, a virus that hasn’t previously infected humans before the end of 2019. As a consequence, it’s important to provide team members with ongoing education in regard to COVID-19 generally and best safety practices associated with the virus on an ongoing, continuous basis.

Team and Patron Available Sanitizer

As part of an overall strategy to satisfy it’s legal duties to workers and patrons, a specialty grocer needs to ensure that hand sanitizer is readily accessible to workers and patrons alike. 

Although specialty grocer team members certainly should already be engaging in appropriate hygienic practices, specifically thorough handwashing, team members need to have a sharpened focus on this activity.

Cashier Stand and Other POC Shields

The installation of protective shields is also an important element in satisfying legal duties to keep people safe in a specialty grocery store. This includes protective shields at cashier stands and at any other locations within a market at which there is a recurring point of contact (POC) between team members and patrons. 

Many specialty markets have a history of maintaining self-service food counters. These need to be eliminated in the COVID-19 era (if not permanently) because of the shared serving utensils. 

Coordinated Instore Pathways

Within a specialty grocery market, coordinated instore pathways should be considered as part of an overall effort to satisfy a legal duty to keep workers and patron safe. This should specifically include specific on-floor or other indicators that delineate where customers are to stand when waiting in line to checkout or at queuing at some sort of service area within the market.

Ongoing Sanitization Throughout Premises

Spot sanitization needs to occur throughout a specialty grocer. This includes such basic steps as regularly sanitizing the checkout area in a store, including a credit or debit card terminal that customers use during the business day. In addition, doorknobs or handles and other fixtures, objects, and surfaces in a store need to be appropriately sanitized throughout the day.

Proactive COVID-19 Contamination Prevention

In addition to the strategies and tactics delineated here, a specialty grocer needs to consider seeking professional assistance and guidance to develop a comprehensive COVID-19 prevention plan. A reputable COVID-19 cleaning company can provide vital assistance in developing such a plan.

Rapid COVID-19 Contamination Remediation

Finally, in order to satisfy its legal duty to workers and employers, a specialty grocer needs to undertake rapid COVID-19 contamination remediation when there’s an indication that an issue exists. For example, if a team member is diagnosed as having COVID-19, a specialty grocer is advised to temporarily close the market and bring in a professional COVID-19 cleaning company immediately.