Grocery stores are implementing ‘senior-only’ hours due to coronavirus. Are they safer?

Stop & Shop, Whole Foods, and Market Basket have all made the move.

Empty shelves and a line of shoppers waiting to check-out at the Market Basket in Chelsea last Friday. Bill Greene / The Boston Globe

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Grocery stores across the country are looking more like scenes from doomsday movies – with their empty shelves, ransacked stands and wiped-out canned goods aisles – as people isolate themselves indoors to flatten the curve. Some grocers and retailers grew concerned that fear-based shoppers could endanger elderly customers and have implemented custom hours for seniors, even as experts debate whether such a move would prevent the vulnerable from contracting the virus.

Dollar General and Stop and Shop, as well as Whole Foods and Market Basket, will open their doors early just to seniors and those with compromised immune systems, the companies announced.


The seniors-only hour kicked off at Dollar General locations on Tuesday. Stop and Shop rolls out the plan on Thursday. Dollar General’s first opening hour will be dedicated to seniors. Stop and Shop stores will serve customers 60 and older between 6 a.m. and 7:30 a.m.

Dollar General wants to help seniors shop in a less busy environment, said company spokeswoman Crystal Ghassemi. “We want to make sure that, just given their higher susceptibility to the virus, that it gives them an opportunity to have a little bit more pleasant shopping experience,” she said.

Older adults and people with underlying health conditions are at a higher risk of contracting covid-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Early data from China CDC indicated the virus can be fatal for older adults, especially those older than 80.

The special senior hours at both stores are meant to provide a safe environment for older customers and immune-compromised consumers, but experts question how protective the environments really are.

Not all grocers are following the path of Dollar General and Stop and Shop. H-E-B, a San Antonio-based grocery store with hundreds of locations throughout Texas and northeastern Mexico, told CNN that it will not have such an hour, based on recommendations from health officials.


“We feel asking a group to congregate at our stores in a certain time frame is not a safe idea,” the company told the news outlet in a statement.

There’s no such thing as being too cautious as a senior during this time, but the details of how these shopping hours would benefit them are questionable, according to Alysa Krain, an infectious disease doctor who specializes in geriatric medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.

“Right away, that kind of makes me nervous,” she said, adding that she and her colleagues are advising their elderly patients to have friends and relatives shop for them. “It was a good idea in general, but it’s a little bit dangerous if it’s not controlled.”

Krain said stores should still be mindful about ensuring that seniors have at least six feet between them and to dissuade crowds beyond 50 people.

Stop and Shop stores currently don’t have plans to establish crowd limits, but each location is closely adhering to the guidance of local government, according to company spokeswoman Jennifer Brogan. “I don’t think we’ll know exactly what the demand will be until Thursday,” she said.

The company doesn’t anticipate space between customers as being an issue, considering the size of most store locations, she said.


Dollar General is encouraging customers who aren’t elderly will give silver-haired shoppers the time and space they need to shop more safely, Ghassemi said.

Bettina Fries, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Medicine, echoed concerns about the number of seniors in a space but saw potential for the at-risk population.

“I hope the scattered shopping hours would lead to seniors being in a store with less people,” she said. “It’s less likely that you will have senior with coronavirus in a store because they’re less likely to be asymptomatic.”

Grocery stores could also offer delivery services to seniors, an option Stop and Shop has, and take phone orders to accommodate technological challenges, she said.

Community members could pitch in by delivering groceries to their senior neighbors as the country grapples with reducing infection through social distancing.

“Western countries are struggling much more. Think about how many people don’t evacuate during hurricane season,” she said, adding that young and old people should stay inside as much as possible.

While the country awaits a decrease in confirmed cases, both Dollar General and Stop and Shop say they will offer their special hours for the unforeseeable future.


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