Like nearly every other aspect of Mainers’ day-to-day life, regular trips to the grocery store have been distinctly altered as the coronavirus pandemic has worsened.

On late Friday morning, customers at the Hannaford supermarket in Scarborough were greeted with large signs reminding them to practice social distancing. Another notice told customers that they were limited to two items apiece of 17 products, including eggs, water, toilet paper, hand sanitizer and baby wipes.

Inside, customers piled grocery carts high with household essentials and jockeyed to keep a safe distance. Some wore plastic gloves and face masks. Shelves and cases that last month would have been fully stocked with pasta, frozen vegetables, rice, tuna fish and paper products were bare, or nearly so.

Customers entering the checkout aisles were funneled into a waiting queue, with red tape on the floor to mark 6-foot distances. Employees waved customers one by one into lanes, where they were greeted by clerks from behind clear Plexiglas shields.

On her way out, Belinda Ledue of Scarborough said she found everything she wanted at the supermarket. It was her second visit on Friday, to buy groceries for a friend.

The company’s new measures made her feel safe to shop there.

“I think they’re doing a great job, I’m really pleased with how hard they’re trying,” Ledue said. Still, with an older father-in-law at home, she plans to avoid shopping when stores are likely to be crowded.

“I just think it’s smart,” Ledue said.

Cashier Cindy Rogers asks a customer to wait to move up to the register until she is finished ringing up her current customer at the Hannaford supermarket in Scarborough on Friday. Hannaford stores have installed Plexiglas barriers at the cash registers as a safety precaution for cashiers and customers during the coronavirus outbreak. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Across Maine and the country, essential stores such as supermarkets, grocers and pharmacies are enacting new policies to keep their employees and customers safe from coronavirus transmission.

Hannaford, the state’s most ubiquitous supermarket chain, has rolled out operating procedures like those at the Scarborough store for its staff and customers at nearly all of its 182 locations, including 63 in Maine.

Social, or physical, distancing was a secondary thought less than two weeks ago, when customers crammed supermarkets in a buying frenzy as the severity of the health emergency began to set in.

“Associates were working off adrenaline a week and a half ago, they were less concerned about safety and more concerned about supply,”  Hannaford President Mike Vail said in an interview at the Scarborough store.

That’s changed. As state and local governments embrace aggressive measures to keep people apart and mitigate the virus’ spread, attention has shifted to keeping customers and staff as safe as possible.

Over the past week, stores have increased sanitation regimes and closed off open-air serving areas such as salad bars and hot-food bars. Deli counters, where employees have to come in close contact with each other and customers, have been closed in favor of pre-sliced and packaged meat and cheese, Vail said.

Hannaford and other supermarket chains have set early morning shopping hours for people 60 years or older and those especially vulnerable to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings between 6 and 7 a.m. are reserved for those customers at Hannaford.

A sign posted Friday at the entrance to the Hannaford supermarket in Scarborough reminds customers to stay 6 feet apart while in the store. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Stores are open limited hours – 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. at Hannaford – to provide extra time to restock shelves and give employees some rest. Similar store hour policies have been adopted by other supermarket chains, department stores and pharmacies.

Shaw’s supermarkets have introduced similar measures, installing Plexiglas shields in front of cashiers, stepping up cleaning, offering dedicated shopping hours for vulnerable people, reminding shoppers of physical distancing rules and offering $2 extra per hour for their front-line employees.

Trader Joe’s supermarket in Portland has limited the number of shoppers it allows in at one time to 50 and taken other precautions inside the store. Walgreens is offering shoppers the option of purchasing household essentials at its drive-thru window and has charted separation markers at its stores to keep people apart. CVS pharmacies have asked customers to use self-checkout kiosks unless they need help from a staff member.

Hannaford provided $2 extra per hour for its full-time hourly employees and $1 per hour for part-time workers on the front lines of the crisis. It is on a hiring kick to bring staffing levels up to meet demand.

Signs on the floor at the Hannaford supermarket in Scarborough show customers where to stop to maintain a 6-foot distance from other customers at the checkout registers. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Vail said his company is offering additional sick leave and forgiving absences for employees who feel unsafe or have to care for family members and loved ones.

Shoppers have generally been good about adopting safety measures, Vail said. Fewer families are shopping together, opting to send just one person into the store to get what they need. Many shoppers are trying their best to keep a safe distance from others in the store.

“I’m seeing a very different posture from our customers than I did a week ago,” Vail said.

But narrow shopping aisles can make keeping to physical distancing guidelines tricky, especially during peak hours. Afternoons from 4-6 p.m., midmorning on Saturdays and midday Sundays typically have the heaviest traffic, Vail said.

The company plans to create one-way traffic along the aisles to help shoppers and employees stay apart, he added.

So far, supply chains have held up under the strain of the pandemic, Vail said. Stores have plenty of fresh produce, bread and other essentials. Stocks of dairy, eggs and meat have recovered somewhat from the initial buying spree, he said.

Even though stores are mostly getting enough product, there are still shortages of some items. In other cases, manufacturers are limiting variety. Kraft, for example is focusing on its flagship blue box macaroni and cheese, but might cut back on the kaleidoscope of other mac-and-cheese options it typically makes, Vail said.

Based on some empty shelves Friday, the chain is having trouble keeping key items fully stocked.

“Product is flowing in, but we can’t get on top of the demand cycle,” Vail said. “It’s been a real challenge trying to manage the aggressive purchasing habits people have.”

Stores are being stocked evenly based on sales volume and patterns, he added.

“There won’t be one store that gets 10 pallets of toilet paper and one that doesn’t get any,” for example, he said.

Speaking of toilet paper, the continued shortage at stores, which started two weeks ago and hasn’t let up, is a baffling pattern, Vail said.

“I can’t tell you what the toilet paper thing is,” he said. “The other stuff is predictable and it makes sense.”

Hannaford has not yet limited the number of customers allowed in at one time, but it is in discussion with Gov. Janet Mills’ office in case that becomes necessary.

With its floor spaces varying between 20,000 square feet and 70,000 square feet, the chain might have to limit shoppers to fewer than 100 at a time at some locations to stay within guidelines, Vail said.

For Vail, the most challenging part of the entire experience has been the uncertainty. New England supermarkets are familiar with runs on food and essentials during winter storms and hurricanes, but those are limited emergencies, he said.

Now, the state is heading into its third week of a public health crisis, without any sense of when it will be over.

“The hardest part has been the extended length of this,” Vail said. “You start to run out of adrenaline and then the fatigue sets in.”

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