Grocery store workers at a Whole Foods in D.C.’s well-to-do Logan Circle neighborhood have told multiple news outlets that as many as 16 of their colleagues have contracted the novel coronavirus while the store has stayed open without informing shoppers.
For at least the the last week, customers have been lined up outside in a blocks-long, social distancing queue, waiting for their turn to empty shelves of organic flour, canned tomatoes, and peanut butter while employees in medical masks wait to check them out from behind plexiglass partitions.
CBS affiliate WUSA9 reported Wednesday that it had independently confirmed six cases of COVID-19 for workers at the Logan Circle store. The outlet originally reported a claim from an anonymous Amazon shopper that a dozen workers had caught the coronavirus, but filed a correction when the company contradicted an assertion that the store had not undergone a deep cleaning. The New York Times subsequently published a report that stated a worker passed a photographer a note claiming 16 confirmed employee cases at the store. A representative for the high-end grocer tells the Times that “multiple team members” have caught the virus.
In an email obtained by WUSA9, Whole Foods told workers that the store had undergone enhanced cleanings, and employees were free to take unpaid leave through April if they felt uncomfortable showing up to work. On Monday, April 13, Whole Foods sent workers a text message confirming four employee cases of COVID-19, saying the last known case in the store was on April 9.
Representatives from Whole Foods have confirmed that employees at four of its five locations have tested positive for the coronavirus.
Essential businesses are not required to report coronavirus cases. Whole Foods said it would temporarily close another District location, in Foggy Bottom, for deep cleaning when a case was reported April 1. Last week, a Trader Joe’s on 14th Street NW — about half a mile away from the Logan Circle Whole Foods — temporarily closed for deep cleaning after reporting an employee tested positive for COVID-19.
Grocery store workers have been on the front lines of a pandemic that has been highlighting stark divisions in socioeconomic class. While many white-collar workers continue to collect paychecks and rush to stores to stock on groceries, the service industry has been best by massive layoffs and workers who must weigh the risk of contracting a potentially lethal virus with providing for their families. The Washington Post reports that, through Tuesday, at least 41 grocery workers had died during the pandemic, including meatpackers and people in other food processing jobs. According to the city, black and African-American residents account for 46 percent of the cases in D.C. — and 75 percent of the deaths.
Officials have flagged the D.C. region as a potential hotspot for the coronavirus. Through Wednesday, the District, Maryland, and Virginia reported a combined for 18,765 cases and 683 deaths. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser extended D.C.’s emergency measures by three weeks on Wednesday, keeping precautions in place through at least May 15. The mayor also amended the city’s “stay-at-home” order by mandating that all workers and customers inside any food retail business must wear protective masks.