Conservatives take to social media to blame Biden for the supply chain crisis with #BareShelvesBiden, while others hit back with images of fully stocked stores

Supply chain stock shortages
A grocery store shopper browses a limited supply of bread.

  • Conservatives are flocking to social media to blame President Biden for supply-chain issues using the hashtag #BareShelvesBiden.
  • In response, some users are debunking images of empty grocery stores as old, edited or from a different country.
  • The movement comes amid mounting tension over supply chain snags and Biden’s “Build Back Better” economic plan.

As the supply chain crisis intensifies, some Americans are taking to social media to blame President Joe Biden and mock the administration’s $3.5 trillion “Build Back Better” economic plan.

On Twitter, the hashtag #BareShelvesBiden has started trending, as users share photos and memes of empty shelves from retail stores around the country. The movement has prompted a subsequent backlash from others debunking the images as old, doctored, or from other countries, as well as countering with images of their own of fully stocked grocery stores.

#BareShelvesBiden first began picking up steam on Tuesday, following a viral Facebook meme that contrasts a fully stocked grocery store shelf with an empty one, along with the captions “Trump’s America” and “Biden’s America,” respectively. According to the fact-checking site Snopes, the top image is actually a 2012 photo from a store in Melbourne, Australia, while the bottom photo was taken in South Carolina in 2018 during Hurricane Florence.

The meme was allegedly posted in response to continued delays at major ports, which have since prompted the Biden Administration to broker a deal to expand 24-hour operations at the Port of Los Angeles.

“With holidays coming up, you might be wondering if the gifts you plan to buy will arrive on time. Today we have some good news: We’re going to help speed up the delivery of goods all across America,” Biden said in an address at the White House on Thursday, the Associated Press reported.

The #BareShelvesBiden movement continued to grow on Wednesday, after conservative commentator Kimberly Klacik shared a since-deleted photo of an empty grocery store with the caption “A Look at #BuildBackBetter.” According to Politifact, the image – which depicts price tags in British pounds – is actually from a UK grocery store, taken at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020.

The photo was featured on an editorial in The Guardian published on March 27, 2020, along with the caption “Empty shelves at a Tesco store in Worcester,” Politifact reported.

The social media discourse reflects rising tension over pandemic-driven inflation and mounting supply chain snags, driven by factors including raw-material shortages, increased transportation costs, delays in production, port congestion, and the national labor shortage.

The country’s largest ports in Southern California reached new ship-backlog records every day last month, as shipping times and costs dramatically increased. An estimated 77% of global shipping ports are expected to face delays, and UPS President Scott Price said last month to expect delays and lags to continue through the rest of 2021 and into 2022.

The discourse also comes amid contention over the Build Back Better plan, a $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill proposed by House Democrats that includes expanded social safety net programs and funding to combat climate change. The legislation is widely opposed by Republicans and some conservative Democrats, including Senators Krysten Simena and Joe Manchin, due to the high price tag.

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Costco shoppers hoarding toilet paper again is bad for the economy

costco shopper
There are signs Americans may return to stockpiling as Delta surges.

It’s never a good sign when American shoppers start hoarding goods from Costco.

When the pandemic first hit the US last March, Costco stores were mobbed with panic shoppers bulking up on staples like toilet paper and water, leaving stores dry of necessities. As the highly contagious Delta variant surges across the US, Costco-goers have taken to Twitter to complain about shortages of toilet paper and water at the warehouse again, as well as restrictions on the number of products they can buy.

One customer tweeted: “Headed to Costco and I’m buying all the damn toilet paper,” while another in California said the shortages could be a “sign of the times to come.”

It indicates that shoppers may be back to stockpiling goods, reported Insider’s Mary Hanbury, but it’s not just Costco consumers. With hospitals in less-vaccinated regions becoming overcrowded and mask recommendations returning, the Delta variant is sparking fears of a repeat of 2020. These Costco anecdotes suggest Americans are responding just how they did a year ago – by preparing to stock up.

Nearly three-fourths of Americans (69%) said they would consider replenishing their stockpiles of groceries and essentials, according to a survey conducted by the analytics firm Inmar Intelligence that polled 1,000 people.

Stockpiling could exacerbate the supply crunch that has been plaguing the economy throughout the year, just at a time when it looked like things might finally be righting themselves.

A return to hoarding could worsen supply chain issues

America reopened to a more expensive economy than the one that existed pre-pandemic, thanks in large part to a supply chain crisis that resulted from a cocktail of factors.

Early in the pandemic, manufacturers struggled to estimate demand in a work-from-home economy while also halting factory production for safety reasons, resulting in a shortage of materials. As unpredictable consumer behavior surged earlier this year, imports picked up speed, clogging shipping ports and resulting in shipping delays. Bad weather, from February’s Texas Freeze to the drought in Brazil, only compounded matters.

As stimulus checks and pandemic savings unleashed a wave of pent-up consumer demand that ran up against the widespread supply shortages and bottlenecks, businesses began to jack up prices and inflation hit Americans’ wallets. The Consumer Price Index rose 0.9% between May and June, much more than the consensus estimate of 0.5%.

There have been recent signs that both the supply crunch and inflation could slowly be abating. Major retailers, including Levi Strauss & Co., Mattel Inc., and Hasbro Inc. all saw fewer imports in July, according to an S&P analysis from earlier this week. The ratings agency said this might suggest the import boom that stemmed from the economic reopening and vaccination rollout may be slowing down.

While inflation remains elevated, it also slowed its roll last month as price hikes waned. The Biden administration said it expected inflation to cool as supply chains heal and the economy normalizes.

The supply chain hasn’t fully rebalanced, though, signaling that Americans’ spending behavior in the face of Delta could add “a speed bump in the recovery,” in the words of Michelle Meyer, Bank of America Research’s chief US economist. In a note published Friday, Meyer wrote that recent softness in spending on the back of Delta shows the economy might have “a bumpier path ahead than we had initially thought.”

As Hanbury reported, consumer stockpiling could become an even bigger issue for grocery stores now than earlier in the pandemic since retailers are still grappling with these supply-chain issues, as well as a labor shortage.

The economy has faced a lot of problems during the worst pandemic in a century. It would be something if the typical American overloading on toilet paper turned out to be another one.

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Kraft Heinz employees say their budget was cut so much they had to bring their own coffee to work and could only spend $5 a year on office supplies

Kraft Heinz logo on a black background, fading to black with cracks leading into food products from Heinz and Kraft brands.
  • Kraft Heinz employees told Insider about the scant resources and high turnover.
  • Cuts backed by private equity firm 3G Capital have forced employees to bring in their own coffee.
  • Subscribe to read Insider’s full story on Kraft Heinz’s corporate culture.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The merger of Kraft and Heinz brought lots of changes to the food company. But one of the most immediate was to employees’ food options at the company’s Chicago headquarters.

Within a month of the merger closing in 2015, Kraft Heinz also removed fridges that held snacks for company employees. While it provided Keurig machines, the company did not supply the pods.

“You had to make the coffee yourself, and you had to bring in your own Keurig pods from home,” one former employee told Insider.

That was only the beginning of the cuts at Kraft Heinz, the company behind Oscar Mayer hot dogs and Kool-Aid drink mixes.

In the six years since the merger, the food giant has left few stones unturned to save money, raiding budgets for new products, employee travel, and everything in between. One employee who recently left the company said that when she was in the office she was limited to spending $5 a year on pens, notepads, and other office supplies.

Nine current and former employees spoke with Insider. They described a company that has fallen behind many of its peers in the food industry. They also said the deep cuts have caused morale to plummet and turnover to soar. And though Kraft Heinz got a sales lift during the pandemic as many consumers ate more at home, many said they expect the effect to fade as life returns to normal.

You can read our full story if you’re an Insider subscriber: 3G’s merger of Kraft and Heinz is killing morale, causing burnout, and choking innovation, some employees say. Now, the company could get left behind as the economy reopens

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Curbside pickup became one of Target’s most valuable weapons to compete with Amazon during the pandemic, and it shows no signs of slowing down

Target curbside delivery
  • Target reported strong first-quarter earnings on Wednesday.
  • Its same-day services – including curbside delivery, store pickup, and its delivery service Shipt – grew by 90%.
  • Experts say these delivery options give Target a competitive edge over Amazon and keep its stores relevant.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Target’s curbside and pickup delivery options have become a key part of its business model.

The big-box chain reported blockbuster first-quarter earnings Wednesday despite coming up against strong comparatives from the year before. Sales at stores open at least a year across both its online and in-store business were up 23% year-on-year.

But the standout component in its earnings was its same-day services – including curbside delivery, store pickup, and delivery through its service Shipt – which are all fulfilled by stores. These grew by more than 90%, led by a 123% boost in curbside delivery specifically, it said.

These services enable Target to leverage its store network and put brick-and-mortar front and center of its business model, giving it a competitive advantage over online-centric Amazon. According to the earnings release, 95% of all sales in the first quarter were fulfilled by its stores.

“Stores continued to be the linchpin of Target’s online capability, once again validating management’s strategic decision to position them at the center of its online flywheel, ” Moody’s vice president Charlie O’Shea wrote in a note emailed to Insider on Wednesday.

The company’s physical footprint “is a major strategic advantage,” Neil Saunders, managing director at GlobalData Retail, said in a note to clients on Wednesday. “Using existing real estate to drive online helps Target’s profitability and improves efficiency for shoppers – which is one of the reasons Target has high satisfaction ratings for its online business,” he said.

In a call with investors Wednesday, CEO Brian Cornell said that its same-day services also have “better economics” than traditional online delivery options as there are no shipping costs.

These services will be a “big part” Target’s capital investment over the next few years, he said. “We expect those services to be very sticky over time.”

The US has been slower than other parts of the world to move into curbside and buy-online-pick-up-in-store delivery options. According to estimates from Insider Intelligence, “click-and-collect” sales more than doubled in 2020 in the US and are expected to grow at this rate through 2024.

Walmart, Best Buy, and Macy’s are among other major retailers to be coming in on this opportunity.

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Drivers for grocery startup Imperfect Foods have voted to unionize, taking organized labor further into on-demand delivery

imperfect foods
  • Northern California drivers at Imperfect Foods have voted to unionize.
  • The grocery startup said it would challenge the results.
  • The election represents a win for unions among delivery workers after recent setbacks.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Delivery drivers at Imperfect Foods have reportedly won an election to form a union.

Bloomberg first reported on Friday that a group of the grocery delivery startup’s drivers in Northern California had won an election overseen by the U.S. National Labor Relations Board. Results showed that 28 drivers had voted to unionize while 23 were against it. The union would represent about 80 employees if it materializes, according to the report.

Imperfect Foods got its start in 2015, mainly selling produce that did not meet supermarkets’ cosmetic standards but was still edible. Since then, it has added other kinds of food, such as fresh meats and beauty products. The roster of customers for its weekly grocery deliveries has exploded thanks, in part, to the pandemic.

Imperfect Foods told Insider that it would challenge the union results, saying that the election results “were materially impacted by the inability of certain drivers to timely obtain ballots.” A representative for the United Food & Commercial Workers union told Bloomberg that it “believes in the integrity of the results of the election” and plans to bargain with Imperfect Foods’s management.

Workers at Imperfect told Bloomberg that the union drive began last summer in an effort to fight high healthcare costs and heavy workloads delivering boxes of fresh foods to customers.

The startup is one of several digital grocery marketplaces that has seen sales balloon and fundraising soar over the past year thanks to pandemic-driven demand. As of January, Imperfect alone had raised $239 million, according to Pitchbook.

Other grocery marketplaces include Hungryroot, Thrive Market, and Good Eggs. And a host of delivery-focused startups have also had banner years as consumers looked to avoid in-person shopping, most notably Instacart, which The Information reported last month is planning to go public by the end of 2021.

Unionization efforts at delivery-focused companies have suffered setbacks in recent months. In January, Instacart laid off its only unionized employees as part of a broader move that affected hundreds of positions. This month, a high-profile unionization election at an Amazon facility in Bessemer, Alabama, failed to get enough votes from workers there.

Companies that rely on gig workers to make deliveries got a boost during last year’s elections when California voters approved Proposition 22. The measure’s passage preserved the independent contractor designation instead of having to classify them as full employees.

Unlike at Instacart or many other startups, the Imperfect Foods delivery workers who voted to unionize are not independent contractors, meaning that they’re entitled to protections under federal law, including organizing rights. Recent job postings for Imperfect drivers in San Francisco, Boston, and the Washington, DC area described full-time positions with pay of between $17 and $22 an hour and benefits like medical and dental insurance.

Do you work at Imperfect Foods or another grocery company and have a story to share? Contact this reporter at abitter@insider.com or by phone, text, or encrypted messaging app Signal at (808) 854-4501 using a non-work phone.

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Here’s the mailbox that could become a focal point in the battle between Amazon and union officials

Amazon Bessemer mailbox
The mailbox stands in front of the Bessemer warehouse.

  • The union behind the failed unionization attempt has argued a warehouse mailbox may have deterred voting.
  • The RWDSU obtained emails between USPS workers showing Amazon had pushed for the mailbox.
  • The union said the mailbox would be a primary piece of evidence in its unfair labor practice charge.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

A mailbox outside of Amazon’s Alabama warehouse could become a central focus in the aftermath of a historic union battle at the site.

On Friday, a vote count revealed Amazon workers at the company’s warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama voted against forming a union, with 70.8% being “no” votes.

The Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) issued a statement in response to the vote announcing its plans to file an objection and unfair labor practice charge (ULP) against Amazon.

The union highlighted the mailbox when announcing the ULP charge.

“Worst yet, even though the NLRB definitively denied Amazon’s request for a drop box on the warehouse property, Amazon felt it was above the law and worked with the postal service anyway to install one,” Stuart Appelbaum, president of the union, said in a statement. “They did this because it provided a clear ability to intimidate workers.”

The day before the vote count the union revealed it had found emails showing Amazon had pushed the US Postal Service to install the mailbox at the warehouse.

The union has argued that the mailbox could be perceived as a way to deter workers from voting in favor of a union. The group has been working to represent nearly 6,000 Amazon workers at the Alabama warehouse.

Over the past seven weeks, Amazon workers voted on whether to join the first union in the US that would represent Amazon employees.

“It’s fairly common for there to be unfair labor practice charges at the end of a contentious election like this,” John Logan, a labor and employment professor at San Francisco State University who specializes in tactics companies use to defeat union drives, previously told Insider. He added that it’s “fairly difficult” to predict how the NLRB will ultimately rule on those charges.

When the mailbox was initially installed in February – just before the voting process began – Amazon reportedly emailed workers telling them to use the mailbox to vote against forming a union.

Amazon has historically acted to prevent unionization at its warehouses. An Insider investigation found Amazon used several anti-union tactics, including posting anti-union signs at its warehouses and holding meetings designed to convince workers to vote against the union.

Mailbox Amazon Bessemer
The mailbox outside the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer.

The union has spoken out against the mailbox in the past. The group said the mailbox could make it seem as if Amazon would be able to see the votes – a factor that would deter employees voting in favor of a union.

The mailbox was installed after the National Labor Relations Board rejected the company’s request for employees to vote in person at the warehouse. The board opted for mail-in votes instead.

Amazon told Insider the boxes were an effort to allow workers to vote more easily.

“We said from the beginning that we wanted all employees to vote and proposed many different options to try and make it easy,” an Amazon spokesperson told Insider. “The RWDSU fought those at every turn and pushed for a mail-only election, which the NLRB’s own data showed would reduce turnout. This mailbox – which only the USPS had access to – was a simple, secure, and completely optional way to make it easy for employees to vote, no more and no less.”

The USPS also responded to the reports about the emails.

“The box that was installed – a Centralized Box Unit (CBU) with a collection compartment – was suggested by the Postal Service as a solution to provide an efficient and secure delivery and collection point,” a USPS spokesperson told Insider.

“It’s easy to predict the union will say that Amazon won this election because we intimidated employees, but that’s not true,” Amazon said in a statement following the finalized vote. “Our employees heard far more anti-Amazon messages from the union, policymakers, and media outlets than they heard from us. And Amazon didn’t win-our employees made the choice to vote against joining a union.”

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BJ’s Wholesale president and CEO Lee Delaney dies aged 48

Lee_Delaney BJS Wholesale
Lee Delaney

  • Lee Delaney, President and CEO of BJ’s Wholesale Club, died Thursday at age 48.
  • He’s presumed to have died of natural causes, the company said.
  • Delaney joined BJ’s in 2016 and is remembered as a “brilliant and humble leader,” the company said.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Lee Delaney, President and CEO of BJ’s Wholesale Club, died Thursday at age 48 of “presumed natural causes,” the company said Friday.

“We are shocked and profoundly saddened by the passing of Lee Delaney,” board chairman Christopher Baldwin said. “Lee was a brilliant and humble leader who cared deeply for his colleagues, his family and his community. We extend our most heartfelt condolences and sympathy to his family, especially his wife and two children,”

“We will honor his legacy and remember the extraordinary impact he had on so many. Our thoughts are with them during this difficult time,” he continued.

Bob Eddy, executive vice president and chief administrative and financial officer, will serve as interim CEO, and Baldwin has been appointed as executive chairman, the company said.

Delaney joined BJ’s in 2016, and was named president of the wholesale chain in 2019. He earned a degree in computer science and mathematics from the University of Massachusetts and an MBA from Carnegie Mellon University before joining Deloitte Consulting and Bain & Company.

“Lee’s strategic vision and leadership have been instrumental in transforming BJ’s Wholesale Club,” Baldwin said of Delaney in 2019 when he was promoted to president. “Under Lee’s leadership, the new organization will build on our progress as we continue our transformation, driving long-term, profitable growth. I look forward to continuing to partner with Lee to transform BJ’s Wholesale Club.”

BJ’s Board of Directors plans to announce permanent leadership changes “within a reasonably short timeframe, aided by our prior succession planning,” the company said.

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Costco is reopening its food courts as restrictions loosen and bringing back fan-favorite items

Costco food court
  • Costco is adding seating back to food courts as restrictions are lifted.
  • The food courts pared down offerings during the pandemic.
  • Costco execs say the food court is key to drawing customers in.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Costco has plans to reopen seating in food courts soon, CNN reported.

In March of 2020, Costco closed down seating areas at food courts and cut back menus. Early in the pandemic, members could only buy hot dogs and pizzas to-go. Now, things are finally getting back to normal. Ice cream, smoothies, and churros are back on the menu, and the wholesale chain is adding back tables and chairs to stores with outdoor areas. Indoor seating is also returning as states lift COVID restrictions.

Costco Chief Financial Officer Richard Galanti is planning for the food court to be back in business.

“God willing. But it’s going to take some time,” he told CNN.

Read more: Dollar General became a larger safe haven for cost-conscious shoppers during the pandemic. Experts now warn a lacking e-commerce presence may be its undoing in topping big-box rivals, even as it grows store offerings.

Costco’s food court is key to the chain’s strategy of making the in-store experience appealing over e-commerce to members.

“It’s still important to get people physically in the store. I don’t think brick and mortar is going away,” CEO Craig Jelinek told CNBC in December.

The famously inexpensive snacks are part of what draws people in, he says. The $1.50 hot dog and soda combo is particularly iconic, and the price hasn’t changed since the deal launched in 1985. Costco founder Jim Senegal once told Jelinek, “If you raise the [price of the] effing hot dog, I will kill you. Figure it out.”

The commitment to keeping the price low has paid off. In the 2019 fiscal year, Costco sold 151 million hot-dog combos for a total of about $226.5 million.

“It’s the mindset that when you think of Costco, you think of the $1.50 hot dog,” Jelinek said. “We have no plans to take that hot dog above a buck fifty,” he told shareholders. “End of story.”

Costco did not respond to a request for comment.

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Amazon reportedly pushed the USPS to install a mailbox outside its Alabama warehouse, a move the union could use to challenge the outcome of the vote

Amazon workers Alabama union
  • Amazon pushed the USPS to install mailbox at one of its warehouses, according to emails obtained by a union.
  • The mailbox could be seen as a tactic to deter workers from voting to unionize.
  • The union could argue to overturn a negative vote result by citing the emails.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Amazon reportedly pushed the US Postal Service to install a mailbox outside of its Bessemer, AL warehouse, according to emails obtained by a Freedom of Information Act request first reported by The Washington Post.

Over the past seven weeks, employees have been voting whether to form the first Amazon union in the US. The emails could have an impact on the union vote at the warehouse after they were obtained by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), the Post reports.

The group is working to represent nearly 6,000 Amazon employees at the Alabama site, in a historic union battle that could set a precedent for other companies.

More than 3,000 workers cast ballots, according to the union, and hundreds have been challenged, mostly from Amazon. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) began its public count of the votes on Thursday.

The union has issued complaints about the mailbox in the past, as the mailbox was installed in February, not long before the start of the mail-in ballot process at the warehouse.

When the mailbox was set up, Amazon reportedly blasted workers with emails and texts telling them to “vote no” and put their ballots in the on-site mailbox, Vice’s Motherboard reported.

At the time, the union argued the mailbox could make it seem as if Amazon itself would directly see the ballots – a move that could deter employees from voting.

Prior to the installation of the mailbox, the NLRB rejected the company’s request for employees to vote in-person at the warehouse. Instead, the organization opted to only allow workers to vote via mail.

The Washington Post reported that if the union loses the vote, the emails – which show Amazon told USPS to get the mailbox up as soon as possible – could potentially be used to challenge the result of the vote, as it could be seen as a tactic to prevent workers from voting.

“We said from the beginning that we wanted all employees to vote and proposed many different options to try and make it easy,” an Amazon spokesperson told Insider. “The RWDSU fought those at every turn and pushed for a mail-only election, which the NLRB’s own data showed would reduce turnout. This mailbox – which only the USPS had access to – was a simple, secure, and completely optional way to make it easy for employees to vote, no more and no less.”

“The box that was installed – a Centralized Box Unit (CBU) with a collection compartment- was suggested by the Postal Service as a solution to provide an efficient and secure delivery and collection point,” a USPS spokesperson told Insider.

RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum told The Washington Post that the emails show Amazon felt it was “above the law.”

“They did this because it provided a clear ability to intimidate workers,” Appelbaum said.

Amazon has historically acted against unionization at its warehouses, employing tactics ranging from posting anti-union signs at its warehouses to holding meetings designed to convince workers to vote against the union.

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Americans’ obsession with staying home hurts vulnerable workers

Amazon Fresh grocery delivery
We cannot grocery deliver our way out of a pandemic.

  • Public messaging in the pandemic has said “we” need to stay at home. 
  • This ignores people who must report to a work site.
  • The elevation of making “good” individual choices in the pandemic needs to end. 
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

I was watching Hulu when I first saw the ad. 

“COVID-19 can spread rapidly,” an upbeat, urgent voice said. “Or we can make choices that help us stay home and stop the spread.” 

The advertisement went on to encourage people to have medication delivered via the startup Capsule, to “help keep our communities safe.” It was an ad targeted to people like me, who had spent the pandemic working from home and binging hours of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

The message was clear: the right thing to do to stop the spread of COVID-19 was to stay inside. But, what about the workers who have to travel to a pharmacy, picking up the medicine, and making the deliveries? If staying home means someone else takes on the same risk, is that really safer? Or, does it just shift the risk to someone else, typically to low-income workers

This isn’t a problem that is specific to Capsule. The assumption that “we” can make the choice to stay at home has become inescapable over the past year. It has shaped how the US has responded to the pandemic in ways that ignore, dehumanize, and hurt workers who are already among the most vulnerable to COVID-19. And it needs to stop. 

Food delivery isn’t going to stop the pandemic

Whole Foods
The people most likely to catch COVID-19 in a grocery store are those who spend the most hours in the stores – in other words, workers.

In January, Vox ran an article with the headline: “Still going to the grocery store? With new virus variants spreading, it’s probably time to stop.”

The article is well reported. But the headline ignores the people who are most likely to catch COVID-19 in a grocery store: the workers who cannot decide to simply stop showing up. 

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) said that at least 138 of its members working in grocery stores have died, and more than 31,200 grocery workers have been infected or exposed to COVID-19. 

Meanwhile, the risk of a customers catching COVID-19 at grocery stores is so low that Dr. Marietta Vazquez, an infectious disease expert at Yale Pediatric Children’s Hospital, told me delivery versus in-person shopping is simply a personal choice, rather than a safety consideration. This is largely because customers spend far less time inside stores than workers, and therefore have less potential for virus exposure.

And ordering delivery does not substantially reduce the number of people in a store, because most services employ personal shoppers that are separate from store workers. Delivery can protect higher-risk individuals, but it isn’t the silver bullet to stop the spread of COVID-19 in a community.

Many workers understand they cannot simply “stay home,” and have asked for protections throughout the pandemic.

Grocery store employees began to ask for masks to wear at work more than a year ago. Many requests were originally denied, with employers citing the CDC’s guidance against masks at the time. In February, Ben Bonnema said he was fired from his job at Trader Joe’s after asking the company to improve air filtration and deploy other solutions to protect workers. As of this week, only 13 states are providing vaccine access for grocery store workers, according to UFCW.

“Every supermarket in the country must increase worker protections, enforce mask wearing in stores, and commit to disclosing when frontline workers have been infected and died,” UFCW International President Marc Perrone said in a recent statement. 

The spread of COVID-19 is not materially impacted by whether people visit grocery stores themselves or pay Instacart shoppers to do so on their behalf. The bigger problem is the lack of protections for the workers themselves. 

Most personal choices aren’t actually solutions

masks airport
Not everyone has the same set of options when it comes to personal choices.

Dr. Vazquez told me that stay-at-home orders assumed that avoiding contact with others was a possibility for entire populations. But, that is not the reality for many people.

“Similarly, recommendations on how to quarantine at home assume individuals live in homes large enough for the symptomatic individual to sleep in a separate bedroom for example and be brought food while staying in the bedroom,” Vazquez said in an email.

“I think that these guidelines, although well intended, leave those with limited financial access to resources behind,” Vazquez continued. 

Zeynep Tufekci, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina known for her reliably prescient pandemic coverage, analyzed similar issues in a recent article.

“Individual responsibility certainly had a large role to play in fighting the pandemic, but many victims had little choice in what happened to them,” Tufekci wrote in The Atlantic. “By disproportionately focusing on individual choices, not only did we hide the real problem, but we failed to do more to provide safe working and living conditions for everyone.” 

Tufekci writes that ineffective “hygiene theater” goes hand-in-hand with a wider theater of personal responsibility. Public messaging reinforces the belief that if an individual does everything “right” – in some cases, having others to take on the risks they avoid – it can halt the spread of COVID-19. 

“There have been very few things we could do at an individual level to reduce our risk beyond wearing masks, distancing, and disinfecting. . . . No wonder there was so much focus on telling others to stay home – even though it’s not a choice available to those who cannot work remotely – and so much scolding of those who dared to socialize or enjoy a moment outdoors,” Tufekci writes. 

Everyone should reduce risk in whatever way they can. But the emphasis on personal choices ignores people who do not have many options when it comes to quarantining. That makes it more difficult to advocate for solutions that can best prevent the spread of COVID-19, whether that be improving ventilation or better sick leave policies. 

As vaccines become more widely available and governments roll back precautions, we cannot allow the theater of personal responsibility to dominate the national discourse. Instead, we need to demand protections for all people – those who can afford to stay home, as well as the people who are actually delivering their meals.  

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