Cashier behind Guard with Mask - © 2020

COVID-19: The Plastic Barrier Has A Chilling Effect…

We’re all familiar with the plastic hoods that restaurants and supermarkets place over buffet tables and Deli displays. Now, the stores that are still open are adding Plexiglas barriers between customers and cashiers at their check out lines…

Cashier behind Shield - © 2020 AP - SF ChronicleMost grocery store cashiers are now working behind clear plastic shields.
Some are even wearing gloves, masks and plastic face shields, as well.
That all ads up to making shopping a cold, surreal experience.

In the business, we call them ‘sneeze guards’. They prevent anything that comes out of you in a sneeze or cough, or simply when you’re breathing, from getting onto the food. They’re mandatory, under health department regulations, on buffets and in self service situations such as Deli Olive and Pickle displays.

Now, more and more food and convenience stores are installing similar guards – usually large sheets of flat Plexiglas – at check outs to keep customers and cashiers from sharing the products of sneezes and coughs. They are there to protect both you and the cashier; either of you might have the virus and not be feeling any symptoms!

My local supermarkets are already using them

I wish I had stock in a the Plexiglas company right now. Manufacturers can’t keep up with orders for new check out shields, and price doesn’t appear to be an object. All the local supermarkets are already using them and even the M&M Food Store around the corner from my place, my source for frozen stuff – has put one in.

A classic case in point is 7-Eleven stores here in Canada. The head office is reportedly sending each of its 636 Canadian stores not one but two clear plastic guards to be installed immeduately. The instructions that come with the panels say to place credit/debut card terminals on the customer side of the guard for easy access. But my go-to market (the Sobey’s closest to my house) is having the cashier disinfect the terminal keypad after every customer use. I may be paranoid, but I think I prefer Sobey’s method to 7-Eleven’s. Like my dear, departed step father always said at times like this: “Better safe than sorry!”

“Our stores recognize the need to provide Canadians with access to essential products during this time, however we continue to take precautionary measures to keep our employees and customers safe,” said 7-Eleven Canada Vice President and General Manager Norman Hower. “We continue to monitor the evolving situation daily to prioritize the health of Canadians alongside Canada Health recommendations.”

The cashier guards are the final step in 7-Eleven’s anti-COVID-19 program, which includes enhanced standards and procedures for hygiene, hand washing, sanitation and food handling. They’ve also placed markers on the floor to help customers judge the 6 ft. /2 m separation called for under safe distancing recommendations. In fact, most other food and convenience stores have also instituted similar enhanced hygiene regimes and laid out floor markers.

My question is…

Will these anti-COVID-19 precautions cease when the pandemic is over? I suspect store managers and head offices will mandate a pullback to the old practices that were followed before the virus struck. It would cost more to carry on with enhanced hygiene protocols if they exceeded the measures mandated by health department regulations. But what about the other things?

I guess the social distancing marks on the floors will just be allowed to scuff off, like the other markings stores stick to the floor for other reasons, and not be replaced. But what about the Plexiglas cashier guards?

A chilling effect

All aside from the other protocols stores are instituting during the COVID-19 crisis – such as limiting the number of customers allowed into the store at one time, sanitizing grocery cart handles and digital payment terminals, providing assisted shopping for seniors to help limit their time and potential exposure inside the store, and so on – I suspect that the cashier guards will stay up. They represent a significant investment, and I don’t see supermarkets and convenience stores just junking them after the pandemic passes. Nor do I see store managers or head offices paying someone to uninstall them and store them until the next health emergency comes along. Profit margins are narrow enough in the grocery business, already.

Which brings me to the reason I sat down to write this post in the first place.

The cashier guards are well-meant, and I think we all recognise and respect the reason for them being there. But the grocery shopping experience has changed for me because of them, and I’m wondering if things will every return to normal vis à vis my relationships with my favourite cashiers?

In the same way I have go-to supermarkets, I have go-to cashiers. Their knowledge of the sales and new products and other bits of store intelligence is invaluable to me. Now, when I venture out to buy supplies, I fell a distinct chill at the check out. No more friendly smiles, no more… What would you call it? Sharing.

It’s like a family member visiting a prisoner in jail, except you don’t need a phone to communicate. And the prisoners behind the window are wearing gloves, masks and sometimes even face shields.

The longer the enhanced anti-virus protocols stay in place, the more we will all become accustomed to them and consider them the new normal. I wonder if my go-to cashiers will be friendly again after COVID-19 becomes history? Or has the virus thrown up an invisible barrier of suspicion and fear between cashiers and the customers that will never come down? We’ll have to wait – until July, apparently – to see…

~ Maggie J .