County stores come up with ways to satisfy customers’ needs under Mills mandate
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AROOSTOOK COUNTY, Maine — Shopping in Aroostook County will soon be a much different experience after Gov. Janet Mills issued a new edict March 31 limiting the number of customers a store can have inside at one time.
Starting Thursday, business owners must regulate how many shoppers are allowed inside their stores to promote greater social distancing in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
As part of the ongoing concerns, Mills ordered stores that are less than 7,500 square feet may only have up to five customers in their stores at any one time. Examples of these types of stores are most gas stations and convenience and specialty food stores.
Stores that are more than 7,500, but less than 25,000 square feet, must limit the number of customers to 15, while those stores with more than 25,000, but less than 50,000 square feet may only have up to 50 customers.
Stores that are more than 50,000 and less than 75,000 square feet may only have up to 75 customers, while stores that are 75,000 square feet or larger can have up to 100 customers.
“We’re still trying to figure it out at this point,” Jessica Audibert, co-owner of John’s Shurfine in Fort Kent, said. The grocery store measures about 10,000 square feet and will be limited to 15 customers at a time.
“We’re thinking we might have to have someone stand by our door and count them as they go in or out,” Audibert said. “We’re still trying to wrap our heads about what to do. We have a pharmacy, so we have to count their customers also.”
John’s employees will also disinfect shopping baskets and carts as customers leave the store. On Saturday, prior to the governor’s order, John’s had already installed plexi glass at checkout counters to provide a safety barrier between customers and cashiers.
Paradis Shop and Save also has the plexiglass barriers in place at its stores in Fort Kent, Madawaska and Brewer. The retailers have placed signs around the store reminding customers to maintain a six-foot distance from one another, and has a voice message being read over the stores’ intercom every 30 minutes to remind customers of the need for social distancing.
Saucier’s in Van Buren, a grocery store with about 3,500 feet of retail space, will limit customers to five at a time, by only allowing five shopping carts at the entrance of the store.
“When there are no more carts, nobody else can come in,” owner Jim Lizotte said.
Audibert acknowledged the difficulties all in the community are facing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This isn’t the way any of us are used to living,” she said. “Everybody please stay safe. We’ll do our part and you do yours.”
Jimmy Donahue, manager of Steaks n’ Stuff in Presque Isle, announced Wednesday that the store, which is 9,800 square feet, will have 15 shopping carts available at the entryway. Only 15 customers will be allowed in the store at one time and must shop alone unless having another person help them shop is necessary.
Donahue said that he urges customers to wait outside if no shopping carts are available when they arrive. Cones will be spaced six feet apart outside the store to enforce social distancing for those waiting in line.
“We will have someone at the door to direct traffic and to explain all the rules to customers,” Donahue said.
Joshua Tweedie, owner of Star City IGA in Presque Isle, Hillside IGA in Fort Fairfield and Mars Hill IGA, also announced plans on Wednesday for his stores to implement a 15-person limit and eliminate all shopping baskets. Starting Thursday, customers will only be allowed to use carts and will have to wait until a cart is available if the store has reached its customer limit.
All three stores have begun offering a curbside pick-up option, though Tweedie encourages customers to give employees at least 45 minutes to an hour to assemble an order. Curbside pick-up is available seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and customers must order at least $25 worth of items.
Tweedie said he and the store managers have not yet determined if they will set up cones outside or establish another option that enforces the six-feet-apart rule for customers waiting outside.
“We’re still having discussion about that and we know this is going to take a lot of trial and error for us,” Tweedie said. “Everyone is doing the best they can and it’s going to take some patience.”
In the meantime, IGA employees will encourage customers to complete their shopping as quickly as possible to make room for others. Employees will continue to sanitize surfaces and door knobs regularly.
At Graves Shop n’ Save in Presque Isle, owner Bob Graves said that while the store is 40,000 square feet and is allowed to serve no more than 50 single customers at a time during the next month, he and store employees are still discussing how to implement the rules.
“We don’t have an exact plan yet, but we will be announcing one on our Facebook page,” Graves said.
Save-A-Lot, which has stores in Caribou and Presque Isle, will limit their customers to 15 at a time, according to Scott Hewitt, Caribou store manager. To do this, the manager said only 15 carts will be available in order to prevent contamination. Customers will need to wait until a cart is available before entering the store.
Additionally, Caribou and Presque Isle Save-A-Lot stores are offering curbside delivery to customers who call in advance. Each customer will receive a $20 bag of essential groceries such as milk, bread, potatoes and canned goods.
As of mid-morning on Wednesday, Hewitt said the store’s plan is still up in the air and that they will have a more definitive policy in place by the end of the day.
“We’re not going to give up on the customers,” he said. “We’re here to serve them and make sure they get what they need.”
Walmart, the area’s largest retailer is now limited to 100 customers in the store at any given time at its two County locations — Houlton and Presque Isle.
In southern Aroostook County both Andy’s IGA and Hannaford supermarkets fall within the 50 customer guideline, while the County Yankee, with 11,440 square feet, will be limited to just 15 customers.
Hannaford began its screening process Wednesday, with a person in the foyer providing carts to people. Inside the store, the cash registers are roped off, with a store employee indicating to customers when they can enter the line to check out.
County Yankee announced Thursday it was going to place just 15 shopping carts in its lobby. All customers must use a shopping cart and if none are available, the customer must wait until some exits the store with one.
The waiting area has blue lines, marked six-feet apart for those waiting to enter the store. Shoppers are also going to be limited to just one customer per family, to allow for the most families to shop at one time.
County Yankee, like many others, is also offering curbside pickup service.
Houlton Police Chief Tim DeLuca said his department would not patrol stores to make sure companies are abiding by the new order.
“What we are depending on are the staff [of the stores] to take this seriously and for them to be in compliance,” DeLuca said. “It really falls to them. We don’t have the resources to go out to every store. If we get complaints, we will then talk to that store’s management. It’s about all of us doing what we can to reduce the spread of this disease.”
As of Wednesday afternoon, Aroostook County still has no confirmed cases of COVID-19. But Maine Centers for Disease Control Director Dr. Nirav Shah continually advises members of the public to engage as though the virus is already in the area.
“I continue to urge everyone, even if your county isn’t on the board yet, even if your county does not yet have confirmed community transmission, I urge everyone to live their life as if it is already at that stage,” Dr. Shah said during a press conference last week.
Reporters Jessica Potila, Chris Bouchard, Melissa Lizotte and Joseph Cyr contributed to this article.
Correction: A previous version of this story said there were three Walmarts in Aroostook County.