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NWI businesses ramp up virus precautions

NWI businesses ramp up virus precautions

Pandemonium descended on supermarkets across Northwest Indiana and the nation Thursday and Friday after shoppers looking to hole up to avoid being infected by the coronavirus cleared the shelves of bottled water, toilet paper and food.

The parking lots were packed. The lines were long, and the waits much longer than normal. Shopping carts were stuffed with as much bread, milk, canned vegetables or paper products that people could grab.

Retail stores across the Region have been scrambling or struggling to keep hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, Lysol spray and other highly sought after items in stock as fears grow about the rapidly spreading disease that has killed more than 5,000 people in more than 100 countries across the globe. Walgreens, Target, Strack & Van Til and other retailers have had to impose purchase limits per person to keep some items in stock for more people.

"We have put limits on some high-demand items to ensure we reach more customers," Strack & Van Til Chief Marketing & Merchandising Officer Michael Tyson said. "Sanitation products, bath tissue, sanitation wipes, soaps, water and canned goods are in most demand. We’re constantly getting product in to refill."

Strack & Van Til's buying limits per person mostly apply to cleaners, sanitizers, and some paper products.

"Some of these items are also experiencing supply issues from our wholesaler and manufacturers," Strack and Van Til President and CEO Jeff Strack said. "We are working to find alternative sources for product to help meet our customers needs. We are also working with our store teams daily on how to provide our customers, vendors and associates the safest place to shop."

Vyto's Pharmacy has limited sales on procedural masks to one five-pack per customer at its four locations in Hammond and Highland.

"We have some hand sanitizer, but our suppliers have raised their prices, so customers should be prepared to pay more," Pharmacy Educator Virginia Speaks said.

Working 'round the clock

In addition to trying to handle the rush, retailers across have stepped up cleaning efforts in their stores, sanitizing bathrooms, light switches, doors and other surfaces. 

"While we take great pride in our high standards of store cleanliness and food safety, we’re redoubling our efforts to proactively sanitize our stores more frequently throughout the day, especially at our check lanes, self-checkouts and service areas," Meijer President and CEO Rick Keyes said. "We also take the health and safety of our team members seriously. We’re ensuring all team member areas are sanitized on the same increased schedule. We’re also reinforcing with our team members that they should stay home if they aren’t feeling well and we have plans in place to ensure they feel supported and confident to do so."

The run on emergency supplies has meant overtime for many workers in the grocery sector.

"We’ve always taken great pride in our clean and well-run stores, and we know this is more important than ever right now," Target CEO Brian Cornell said. "On top of our daily cleaning procedures, we’re adding hours to each store’s payroll to make our routines even more rigorous. This means more time will be spent cleaning our stores, including cleaning surfaces like check lanes and touchscreens at least every 30 minutes. Like many others, we’re taking guidance from the CDC, which recommends regular cleaning as one of the most important preventive measures we can take. And, out of an abundance of caution, we’ve temporarily stopped food sampling in our stores."

Target also has added staffing to boost its order pickup and drive-up, which have been in high demand as people look to minimize contact with others to avoid contagion. Though Target employees have been putting in longer hours, including at its several locations in Northwest Indiana, the company has been trying to take care of its staff throughout the public health emergency, Cornell said.

"For weeks, we’ve provided them with up-to-the-moment guidance and information so they can keep themselves and their families safe," he said. "We’re encouraging sick team members to stay home and asking our teams to travel only if it’s business critical. And, to help support our team in real-time, we’ve set up a forum where we’re sharing information and taking questions 24/7. They are working around the clock to make sure that the products you want are available when you need them. As demand for cleaning products, medicine, pantry stock-up items and more remains high, we’re sending more products to our stores as quickly as possible."

Extra precautions

While supermarket parking lots have been packed as the crisis has escalated, retailers that sell non-essential items and restaurants have seen a hit in business as people self-quarantine and stay home. 

Business owners across Northwest Indiana have been taking extra precautions to help people feel safe, such as by doing deep cleans, sanitizing their buildings and rolling out curbside pickup of restaurant food. Southlake Mall in Hobart even removed or separated chairs from common areas to encourage people to keep a safe distance from one another.

Restaurants across the Region, including Theo's, Warsaw Inn, White Rhino, Sophia’s House of Pancakes, Edwardo’s Pizza and Miner Dunn, have take precautionary steps such as wiping down menus, scrubbing their floors with bleach, having employees take breaks to wash up, regularly cleaning all tables and chairs, and no longer offering buffets for the time being. Sip Coffee Shop is now serving all drinks in disposable paper cups at its locations in Crown Point and Highland, and Grindhouse Cafe in Griffith also switched to just single-use cups, asking customers not to bring in travel mugs. The Goblin and the Grocer bistro in Beverly Shores is going so far as to discard menus after they're used once so no more than one customers touches a menu.

Expect to see a lot more hand sanitizer stations everywhere out in public — even after the coronavirus outbreak subsides. 

Southlake Mall in Hobart, the Valparaiso-based Family Express chain of convenience stores and the Ciao Bella restaurant in Schererville all have installed hand sanitizer stations, usually at entrances and other high-traffic areas.

"We're putting hand sanitizers everywhere in our stores," Family Express CEO Gus Olympidis said. "This is change habits about personal hygiene. It's changing the way people think and will have a lasting impact, including on working from home. We've been looking at what positions in our corporate office can be done remotely."

Huge impact

Restaurants, which already need to be able to pass unannounced health department inspections, have ramped up their cleaning regimens to trying to stop the spread of the coronavirus and reassure customers their establishments are a "safe place they can gather during this crazy time."

At Ciao Bella, workers are frequently cleaning menus, requiring employees to take five-minute breaks every hour to wash their hands, and using bleach, Lysol and Ecolab to wipe down the bar and floors.

"We're disinfecting all our surfaces with commercial grade sanitizer and wiping down all our menus every time they're brought back," owner Joe Scalzo said. "We want people to understand that when you come out you can feel safe in a safe, clean environment. We aren't doing buffets any more and have spread out the seating so people aren't so close to one another. We want to make customers feel safe to support our business. We're a local restaurant that employs local people from the Region and this is all our livelihoods."

Ciao Bella installed hand sanitizers at the front door, which Scalzo said would become a permanent fixture. The upscale Italian eatery also is offering 10% off carryout to encourage people staying home to grab a meal to go. 

"We'll even bring the food out to the curbside," he said. "We will try to make your life less stressful and be a safe haven when people are panicking. When you handle food, you have to take food-borne illness classes and maintain high standards. We maintain strict sanitary rules and regulations for all our employees. We can provide customers a special meal through DoorDash, UberEats or whatever makes them feel comfortable."

Fewer people have been going out to eat as coronavirus worries have intensified after the cancellation of pro sports, Broadway, Hollywood movies, music festivals and many other events, said Brent Brashier, owner of Doc's Smokehouse and Craft Bar. The barbecue chain has locations in Dyer, Mokena, Madison and Mikwaukee.

"We've had a huge impact, especially in Milwaukee," he said. "We're right next to the Bucks stadium and the Milwaukee Admirals ice rink so we've lost a lot of business from that. We're also by the convention center that normally had its biggest conferences this time of year. That's the store that's most severely impacted."

Doc's has been cleaning more frequently and rigorously at all its locations, following Centers for Disease Control protocols. The restaurant chain is immediately sending home any employees who even appear sick. It's also rolled out curbside carryout for people who are skittish about dining out in public.

"I read that in the hardest hit areas in California and Washington, restaurant traffic is down 20%," Brashier said. "But carryout and delivery are up 10% as people are self-quarantining. You can social distance and still enjoy a restaurant meal and satisfy that barbecue craving. Nobody wants to cook an entire week at a time."

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.

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