Illinois residents should stay home to stop coronavirus. Why are big box stores packed?
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Illinois residents should stay home to stop coronavirus. Why are big box stores packed?

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BELLEVILLE — Renee Kruenegel almost turned around and went home when she saw how many cars were parked outside the Walmart in Highland on Tuesday.

But it had been three weeks since the 51-year-old grandmother of seven had stocked up on groceries, so she braved the store despite concerns about catching COVID-19.

"There were so many people in there, it freaked me out," Kruenegel said. "But the milk we were using was expired."

Kruenegel bought everything she needed and left quickly. But she said she was "amazed" by the number of shoppers in the store who disregarded social distancing guidelines unless they were shown where to stand.

"People were just coming up next to you and squeezing behind you," Kruenegel said. "(Walmart) has spots on the floor to show you where to stand in the checkout line, but when there's no spot, it's like, 'Whatever.'"

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Public health officials are starting to see clusters of cases break out in essential businesses, said Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health.

"Although these businesses need to continue operating, they must take steps to protect both the employees and the customers," Ezike said Thursday.

Grocery, hardware, liquor and other stores are considered essential services during the pandemic, meaning employees keep showing up to work. Shoppers seem to be taking advantage, making their regular trips and putting those employees at greater risk, said Robert Poe, a 60-year-old auto-glass worker from Cahokia.

"A lot of people have to go to Walmart and places, I understand that. But just going to the gas station to buy lottery tickets is ridiculous," Poe said. "I'm not even allowed to go fishing at the state park."

Some stores have taken steps to reduce crowds as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and governors issued social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders. Gov. J.B. Pritzker's stay-at-home order directs Illinoisans to only make essential trips.

Home Depot and Costco announced Wednesday they would begin limiting the number of customers allowed inside, while Walmart began taking employees' temperatures as they report to work. A hardware store in Springfield barred children under 16 to limit the number of people to those who "absolutely need to be there."

Kruenegel wishes shoppers would go to buy only what they need, such as groceries or prescriptions.

"I don't understand clothes shopping right now," Kruenegel said. "I can't imagine anybody is naked during this. Why do you need to buy clothes? That's something you need to save for when this is over."

Non-unionized workers at big-box stores are concerned about staying healthy, said Edgar Ndjatou, executive director of employee advocacy nonprofit Workplace Fairness.

Employees worry about catching coronavirus

Employees at companies with fewer than 500 employees are eligible for expanded sick leave coverage under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Large general merchandise corporations such as Walmart do not have to extend those benefits, though the retail has offered some emergency leave options for employees.

If employees feel their health is in danger, they have legal recourse through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

"All employers should be following CDC guidelines," Ndjatou said. "If an employer is not doing those things or is not following other government regulations to limit the spread of COVID-19, depending on where they are, they could be subject to enforcement and employees can file OSHA claims at federal or state level."

While a worker could be punished or fired for making a complaint, two employees, even if they're not unionized, can to speak to management jointly about unsafe conditions under the National Labor Relations Act, Ndjatou said.

"If the both of us go together, then that's protected activity," Ndjatou said. "Even in a non-union shop, the federal labor laws still apply if more than one worker complain together."

Ndjatou said "social shaming" could also convince stores to control crowds. If customers won't shop there because of health concerns, the companies might take extra precautions.

Kruenegel said she would like to take advantage of grocery pick-up options, though her local Walmart -- one of just a few grocery options in town -- isn't offering that service yet.

Meantime, she said she hopes people will decide to stay at home unless absolutely necessary, even if it's inconvenient.

"It's just for a limited time and if we could do it for a limited time, we could flatten that curve they keep talking about," Kruenegel said.

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