Retailers will be required to limit the number of customers in their stores and take other measures to ensure proper distancing starting Monday under an order issued by Gov. Roy Cooper.
He said during a news conference Thursday afternoon that the number of people inside a store cannot exceed 20 percent of its maximum occupancy under the fire code or five people per 1,000 square feet.
The order also requires retailers to mark spaces six feet apart where people gather, such as checkout lines, and to perform “frequent” cleaning and routine disinfection.
“This should make shopping safer for our customers and retail employees, and prevent stores from becoming a flashpoint for virus transmission,” Cooper said. “Even as you follow the stay at home order, there are still essential reasons to leave the house, like for groceries and medicine, and we want to ensure retail stores are as safe as possible for everyone so no one is a afraid to go out for basic necessities.”
In addition, Cooper said the order also “encourages” stores to take additional steps:
* Make hand sanitizer available
* Set aside shopping time for senior citizens and those at-risk.
* Use shields at checkout
* Make aisles one-way
“I know a number of stores have taken these steps and more to keep their customers and employees safe, and I appreciate their efforts,” Cooper said.
Lowe’s Hardware was among the national retailers that voluntarily instituted measures last week that include allowing only 50 customers at a time to be in the store. It came in response to a public outcry about many of its stores being packed — including the one on U.S. 15-501 in Southern Pines — making social distancing impossible. Lowe’s is designated as an “essential business.”
Customers can enter only through the Garden Center, where an employee keeps count. Social distancing warnings and ‘Wait Here’ signs are posted six-feet-apart at the checkout areas to provide additional protection for shoppers and staff.
In addition, store aisles have been opened up with some displays removed to further support CDC guidelines, and all stores close at 7 p.m. daily to ensure adequate time for staff to clean and restock shelves.
Walmart also began limiting the number of customers who can be in a store at once on April 4, which mirror’s Coopers new order. During operational hours, a store associate will mark a line at a single-entry door, in most cases the grocery entrance, and admit customers on a one-by-one basis.
Each store has established a maximum threshold of five customers per 1,000 square feet of retail space at a given time. This equals roughly 20 percent of a Walmart store’s total capacity.
But at least one employee, who spoke to The Pilot on condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job, said the enforcement and implementation was spotty. The employee said both entrances were still open Thursday and the number of customers seemed to be as much as a typical day.
“As a person who lives in our community and works in our community, Moore County needs to do better,” the employee said. “Walmart, I think, needs to do a better job at spacing people apart and cleaning. This isn’t good.”
Asked about enforcement during the news conference Thursday, Cooper said that is the responsibility of local law enforcement and would likely be complaint-driven. Violation is a class 2 misdemeanor.
But Cooper said he was optimistic that retailers would comply, based on discussions he has had with many of their top executives.
“A lot of them were already taking steps to limit the number of customers,” he said. “I expect all of the retail stores that are open to abide by this. … We believe that our retail stores understand the importance of this and will abide by it.”
Stores must implement the new mandates by 5 p.m. Monday.
Cooper also urged the public to avoid overbuying, which has been a common practice since the pandemic began, with items such as toilet paper, cleaning supplies and disinfectants, hand sanitizer and some food products being scarce.
“The food chain is good,” he said. “Only buy what you need and get out quickly.”
Cooper’s latest order also requires that additional measures be taken to get unemployment claims processed faster. He said this will make it easier for employers to file batch claims — known as an attached claim — for their employees who have been laid off as a result of COVID-19.
“By temporarily delaying some of the hurdles for these employers, we hope to get benefits in the hands of those who need them faster,” he said.
Cooper said the N.C. Division of Employment Security has received 497,000 claims since March 16 and that more than $40.3 million has been paid out, “and more is going out everyday.”
He added that the state has also received guidance from the federal government on how to disperse the supplemental $600 in weekly benefits that comes from the massive stimulus package. He said those checks should start going out by the end of next week.
Cooper said he, his staff and the secretary of commerce “are pushing the department to move as fast as possible.”
“Time is critical and precious for those who are out of work,” he said. Every claim is important and represents an unemployed worker on the edge. Their families and the economy need the funds as quickly as possible.”
Cooper concluded by urging everyone to continue adhering to his stay-at-home order and a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people, which he said will be difficult with the Easter holiday weekend coming as well as Passover that has already begun.
“I want to remind everyone that now is not the time to take a chance by gathering with extended family and friends,” he said. “Even though you are following the stay-at-home order, it’s still too risky to gather in groups for the holiday or any other reason for that matter.
“It’s been strange not being in the church building on Sunday and it will be even harder not to be in the pew on Easter Sunday. But it’s the right thing to do if we care about each other.”
Cooper thanked religious leaders and places of worship for holding services online or encouraging members to worship at home.
“You are protecting your members and everyone in the community.”
Cooper said many people have cancelled trips to the beach or mountains this weekend.
“I know all of this is hard, especially with some family traditions that have gone on for generations,” he said. “This year, the holidays will look different for all of us. But now is the time to hold fast to our beliefs and find new and meaningful ways to celebrate this holiday while staying at home.
“We know that when we make those sacrifices now, we put our state one day closer to coming out of this pandemic, saving as many lives as possible.”
Dr. Mandy Cohen, state secretary of health and human services, said the sacrifices residents are making “are not in vain.” She said all of the measures in place are helping to slow the spread of the virus to prevent a large number of people from getting sick at the same time and overwhelming the health care system.
“But we have a long way to go,” she said. “We can’t let up on our efforts. We are accomplishing what we set out to do. … We are doing this. You are doing this. We are coming together and creating a powerful response.”