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A trip to a Central District grocery store during an outbreak in Seattle: picked over shelves, heroic workers, and ‘at risk shopper’ hours

One of the joys and wonders of living in a walkable area of the city is stopping by the grocery to grab something for dinner. Along the way, you are pretty much guaranteed to see a few interesting things as the residents and workers of the neighborhood come together to gather food and drink. Even in these COVID-19 days, that quick stop and wander through humanity is still an option. But it has taken on a much different mood.

Earlier this week, CHS stopped through the Safeway at 22nd and Madison, one of the hard working groceries serving the central city. There are reports that no matter what comes next including “shelter in place” restrictions, grocery stores in America will remain open. While many of the scenes here in Central Seattle were mundane, others were harder to comprehend. Toilet paper, cleaning supplies, beans, flour, and tofu are probably sold out. There are no eggs unless you get in early.

Still, the vital businesses remain open and are not subject to the state’s restrictions on large gatherings. For now, there is no limit to the number of shoppers that can simultaneously enter a store. Social distancing is more of a suggestion than a command when you’re trying to squeeze down the aisle looking for CInnamon Life.

Besides the picked over shelves and long checkout lines, there aren’t many other signs that things are different. There were no additional security officers at the 22nd and Madison Safeway. The store’s Starbucks was open.

Grocery workers continue to serve through the outbreak. There are reports that more will be hired and that, for some, conditions around sick leave and paid time off are quickly being addressed. Keeping the shelves stocked and the checkout lines moving is a heroic effort.

Meanwhile, a COVID-19 grocery voucher program from the City of Seattle will provide 6,250 families $800 in vouchers “to purchase food, cleaning supplies, and other household goods” at any Safeway store. The city says it is working with private and philanthropic partners “to scale the program to serve significantly more working families” in coming weeks.

How long this part of the COVID-19 response goes on isn’t clear but the inventory and stocking plans from before the first King County infections don’t seem to apply now that we have reached 562. And the various online and delivery options don’t seem to be able to keep up, either. You can fill your online cart but you can’t find an available “delivery window.”

Stores are also cutting back hours to give workers — and the shelves — more time to recover. There are also prohibitions on using “personal bags” for your groceries at most of the chains.

Efforts to make this all work are beginning. This week, most grocers announced special times for “at risk” shoppers. Seniors, pregnant women, and immune system-compromised shoppers are hopefully early risers:


  • Amazon Go Grocery: Not announced
  • Central Co-op: 6 AM to 8 AM
  • Grocery Outlet: Not announced
  • QFCs: Tuesdays and Thursdays 7 AM to 9 AM
  • Safeway: 7 AM to 9 AM
  • Trader Joe’s: Not announced
  • Whole Foods: One hour before opening — 8 AM to 9 AM

And, hopefully, more of these kinds of useful solutions for day to day life — and groceries — are coming.


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18 thoughts on “A trip to a Central District grocery store during an outbreak in Seattle: picked over shelves, heroic workers, and ‘at risk shopper’ hours

  1. You’re the first I’ve seen to allude to the problem of being elderly and those early hours. I wish I could take advantage of them. Thanks for your thoughtfulness.

  2. In my fruitless quest for a thermometer.. yes, stupid, but mine broke this morning and I have a job for which I am expected to self monitor….. I visited a lot of stores around the neighborhood. The 22nd & Madison Safeway is by far the worst… but things like yogurt, eggs and some types of bread don’t stay stocked *normally*… so this really isn’t much of a surprise.

    Other stores have plenty of chicken – which is nearly completely MIA there- though it would appear the meat man did finally come – beef is back. QFC appears to have the market cornered on toilet paper – lots and lots there…

  3. Trader Joe’s seems to be a cluster. Been a couple of times and almost completely empty of product. Yes they are a little cheaper than QFC but what’s the point if you are risking infection to get nothing. Also no self checkout so trapped inhaling death in long lines.

  4. “Also no self checkout so trapped inhaling death in long lines”

    3/19/20 WA COVID-19 total cases in 20 – 39 year olds – 289.
    total deaths in 20 – 39 year olds – 0.

    Maybe you’re older and at risk (71 and asthmatic, perhaps) but if you’re a typical Capitol Hill resident, your chance of death is pretty low.
    40 – 49 year olds: 193 cases, 2 deaths.
    50 – 59 year olds: 220 cases, 4 deaths.

      • Hmm. Had pneumonia and have asthma, wife has diabetes, older. Let’s look at that stats. 10% plus chance of death.

        For a taste of drowning in your own lungs I would recommend pneumonia for a week or two.

        We are still early on in the curve, and one sneeze can probably do an entire checkout line.

    • Millenials should not be so complacent or cavalier….

      ( I believe the NY Times has lowered their paywall for the time being)

      They are not as healthy (as a group) as they would prefer to believe. Up here in the PNW, so far yes, this has overwhelmingly been impacting the oldest generation, but that could easily and quickly change. Overall of the US cases 29% have been in people aged 20-44 and 12% of those admitted to the ICU are also in that age group. If you aren’t willing to change your habits for other people, maybe do it for yourself. Especially if you smoke or vape…

    • It’s not about whether or not YOU get it and will get sick and die. It’s about whether YOU get it and then pass it on to your older or immune compromised family and/or community members.

      The only way to keep EVERYONE safe is for EVERYONE to assume that they have it and that EVERYONE else has it.

      Is this really that hard of a concept?

  5. That Safeway has always been a catastrophe. Who manages it anyway? I went to Grocery Outlet yesterday– full shelves, pleasant clerks, and CHEAPER prices. Get a clue.

  6. Time for the stores to limit purchases. The panic buyers should be sitting on months worth of items by now and the rest of us want to eat and either don’t have the income or storage space to hoard.Some of us also have a bigger sense of thinking of the whole community.

    • When I’ve left stores empty handed, I’ve consoled myself with a couple of points:
      1. No, I didn’t get what I went for, but I can still find *something* to eat at home. I won’t starve. Some people aren’t so lucky even without the Coronavirus.
      2. The gluttonous hoarders sooner or later will have houses SO full of shit they’ll be tripping over it, and they’ll quit buying because there’s nowhere else to put stuff. Then the rest of us can attempt to shop normally. Something tells me a lot of people won’t have to buy toilet paper again until 2022.

  7. Safeway appears to have declared their priorities…. went in for milk today. TP – none to be seen…. chicken – must have crossed the road…. frozen veggies… there’s a few sad bags of corn left… Beer – just finished stocking that aisle full to the brim baby…

    • Just from the perspective of a grocery worker in the area (not Safeway but a nearby store): the chicken supply issue has actually been an ongoing thing for a couple months now, this pandemic has merely exacerbated the supply issues to the point that it’s near impossible to keep on the shelves with the panic buying. Everyone seems to want chicken, nobody wants ground pork, interestingly enough. At my store I know one way we got around this is by going with more local suppliers (local farms, butchers, etc.). The reason there’s so much alcohol on store shelves is because most restaurants are closed and not purchasing alcohol, which means the supply is abundant.

      So, being that it is often hard to discern sarcasm on the internet, I just wanted to give you some insight into grocery work right now, as I can guarantee you that what you are seeing or not seeing on Safeway shelves (or any of the grocery stores, for that matter) isn’t a reflection of their “priorities,” but rather what they can actually get their hands on/what people are panic buying.

      • I live near the Safeway, so I use it sometimes… but the poster above is correct – that store has *always* been a bit of a disaster…. it was amusing to see the stocker just finishing putting out all that beer, when the rest of the store looks like a tornado rolled through. I can hope that they are getting all the beer out of the cooler so that they can fit more stuff like eggs, bread, meat etc. back there in the cooler… but seriously. That store has had trouble keeping TP, yogurt, whole wheat bread and scores of other stuff in stock even before people started acting crazy…. that they aren’t able to restock now is not a surprise. Other stores do not appear to having nearly as much trouble.

  8. I do not understand why grocery store employees, especially checkers, are not being required to wear masks, and also gloves which are changed with each new customer. This should be done to protect the health of the workers as well as customers. The current situation, with unmasked checkers and the moving checkstand platforms, seems very risky to me.

  9. Just FYI. Unfortunately, Whole Foods on Broadway confirmed (via phone call) they do not consider pregnant women to be eligible for the “at risk” hour. Sounds like they are only serving our elderly community members. Thankfully, Safeway includes pregnant women in their “at risk” category.

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