These days, the only time many people leave the house is to visit the supermarket to stock up on groceries, toilet paper and other essentials.
Many supermarket shoppers, often clad in masks and disposable gloves, take precautions to not get infected or spread disease during the coronavirus pandemic, such as by keeping at least 6 feet away from everyone else, including in checkout lines.
It's possible to practice the social distancing public health authorities recommend at the grocery store up to the point when the shopper gets to the cashier to check out.
But the supermarkets have a solution. Strack & Van Til, Jewel-Osco, Family Express, WiseWay in Winfield and other Region grocery stores have been installing sneeze guards at their checkout aisles as a precaution against COVID-19, as well as adding social distancing markers and adding other protections.
Highland-based Strack & Van Til has installed clear polycarbonate barriers between cashiers and shoppers at every checkout aisle at most of its 20 stores across Northwest Indiana, Director of Facilities Don Erminger said.
Various cash register manufacturers offered to provide sneeze guards to Strack and Van Til, but said it would take two to four weeks.
"That was too long," Erminger said. "They gave me directions to get it done."
He went to Miss Print in Munster, which used computer-aided design to design the sneeze guards, then to Konrady Plastics in Portage, which manufactured them.
"With the virus going crazy, the big thing was to create a barrier during cashier and customer interactions that would protect both from sneezes and coughs," Erminger said. "You want to do whatever you can within reason to protect your people. Working at the supermarket is pretty close to being a first responder now, and we need to keep our people from getting sick."
The new normal?
Leah Konrady, of Konrady Plastics, said the company, which specializes in machined plastic parts and distribution of plastic sheet, rod and tube, already had been approached by Lakeshore Foods, which operates Al's Supermarkets in LaPorte County, to make the customized shields. They, like Strack & Van Til, wanted the guards as soon as possible.
"This is exactly what we do," Konrady said. "It's really been such a sense of urgency to us. COVID is our priority right now, and we're glad that we can be part of preventing the spread of it."
Konrady Plastics has supplied hundreds of the shields. Konrady said the company also is making protective boxes for use by physicians, and businesses like banks are showing interest in sneeze guards at teller stations.
"Any industry where you have that interface, that direct interaction, it will be the new normal," Konrady said.
Erminger believes sneeze guards are here to stay in the grocery business.
"I think pretty much the whole industry will go to this," he said. "Even when the virus has passed, people will want to feel comfortable and trusting."
Strack & Van Til has taken other precautions, such as sanitizing its shopping carts daily and bringing in an outside contractor to do a deep sanitization of all its carts in the middle of the night once a week. It's marked off 6-foot distances at its checkout aisles to encourage social distancing, and added dedicated first responder shopping hours from 6 to 7 a.m. every Sunday on top of its senior shopping time during the same hour Monday through Friday.
"The virus is changing the way people are doing their normal business," Erminger said. "We've always had hand wipes for shoppers to sanitize their carts. One person out of every five or six used to grab them. Now everyone does. They're littered all over the floor and parking lot."
Wiseway in Winfield and the Wise Guys Discount Liquors stores in Merrillville, Hobart and Chesterton also installed sneeze guards at their registers.
"It wasn't our idea. We saw a post on Monday and by Tuesday made them with Plexiglas from Menards," President Don Weiss said. "It's a two-way barrier for when people can't keep a distance."
The Chicago-based chain also is encouraging customers to pay with plastic instead of cash.
"We've changed multiple aspects of our business to keep people safe in our space," Weiss said.
Meijer also is installing Plexiglas shields at checkout lanes at its 248 stores across the Midwest, including in Highland, Merrillville, Portage, Valparaiso and Michigan City.
“Meijer is a company that is guided by our fundamental values to do what is right for our team members and customers,” President and CEO Rick Keyes said. “Our No. 1 priority is to provide a safe environment for everyone who walks through our doors while meeting the needs of the communities we serve.”
The Grand Rapids, Michigan-based retailer has removed Sandy the Pony from the front of the stores, marked X's 6 feet apart at its checkout lanes and counters and suspended the use of reusable bags.
Walmart, which has locations across Northwest Indiana, is sending masks, gloves and thermometers to all its stores and warehouses. The retailer will take the temperature of all its workers as they report to work and send them home if their temperature is 100 degrees or higher. It's also encouraging them to keep 6 feet away from people and wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
"We will continue to consult with health officials and experts inside and outside Walmart as this situation evolves," President and CEO John Furner said. "We greatly appreciate the work our associates are doing for customers, members, and their communities, and we will continue to prioritize their health and well-being."
Times Assistant Deputy Editor Andrew Steele contributed to this report.