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Washington state grocers ‘weren’t expecting’ new limits on capacity

Shelves have again emptied at grocery stores in the Puget Sound region. (MyNorthwest photo)

New coronavirus restrictions in Washington state take effect Tuesday, which means retail and grocery stores have to cap occupancy at 25%. Washington Food Industry Association (WFIA) president Tammie Hetrick told the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH that she wishes her association had more advance notice, but she’s confident stores are prepared.

Hetrick released a letter on Saturday to her membership warning that these new restrictions were coming. So, how off-guard was she when the call came from the governor’s office about the 25% occupancy?

“We weren’t expecting that, for sure, and that was our first notice of it, so there hadn’t been any prior discussion,” she said. “Now, we’ve been watching the other states pretty closely to see what they were doing. But definitely there was no prior notice before I sent that message out to the members.”

Gov. Inslee had previously said he and his staff would be speaking with stakeholders from various industries to get their feedback, but Hetrick says that didn’t really happen.

“[The call was] mostly just letting us know what the governor was thinking about and that there would be some potential restrictions on occupancy,” she said. “And some of the things that I put in my letter, those points I put in there, was a heads up that we got on our grocery stores and convenience stores.”

“We were being told what they were going to do,” she added. “That’s the one thing I would have liked to have seen is an opportunity for us to engage more with the governor’s office and talk through some of these things.”

The members of WFIA have weekly calls, Hetrick says, to update each other on how things are going and share what they’re doing in their stores to keep customers and employees safe.

“We had a plan put together in the stores before there was even a mandate, you know, so providing restaurants, everyone, the opportunity to be able to sit at the table and give feedback — we know our industries the best,” Hetrick said. “And we realize that the doctors and everyone else has the data and the information, but we could have helped develop something that may have allowed for more restaurants or stores to be opened.”

In a previous call that included representatives from the state Department of Health, Hetrick says the numbers related to COVID cases and grocery were “extremely low,” and members of the association were already doing a good job with safety protocols.

“I did bring that up in the conversation, that I didn’t feel we needed to have more restrictions on our occupancy because we’ve got that under control, and we’re doing a good job, but that was the only discussion that I had on it,” she said.

Washingtonians urged to avoid hoarding after weekend brings rash of panic shopping

Buy only what you need

As far as the reaction of shoppers after the announcement of new restrictions, which saw people rushing to stores to stock up, Hetrick says she wasn’t surprised.

“We always hope that we can avoid panic buying,” she said. “I check with my supply chain constantly. Just since COVID has started, you know, we’ve had challenges in the past, and so we’ve really stayed strong on being in communication with them. And they say they’re in good shape and they’ll continue to be as long as people just buy what they need and don’t try to stock up and hoard.”

“Our manufacturers are more prepared now this time around, and they have the inventory, it’s just getting the inventory to the stores,” Hetrick added. “The whole point of that letter that I sent to my members was to at least give them a small heads up so they could make sure they had those shelves stocked, and they could be sure that the employees were prepared because we knew this would happen.”

You can’t stop the rush, Hetrick says, but she wanted to make sure WFIA members were prepared.

She warns that while customers might see a different size package or a different brand in the coming weeks, stores are doing their best to be prepared and have what people will need in stock, especially for the holidays.

“I feel like my independent grocers continued to stay prepared and ready because we just never stopped. So they’re ready for this,” she said. “It would have definitely been nice to be able to engage more with the governor’s office and be more prepared, just in employee staffing and having them ready to go, and maybe looking at our shelves a little differently. But we’re preparing for the holidays and that’s the most important thing. We want to make sure everybody has everything they need for the holidays, and that we’re getting them everything safely.”

“And just one last thing,” Hetrick added. “Please be kind to the employees of the grocery stores. They’re doing an amazing job.”

Listen to the Jason Rantz Show weekday afternoons from 3 – 6 p.m. on KTTH 770 AM (or HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). Subscribe to the podcast here.

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