Stores are scrambling to protect their workers from coronavirus. Some have begun taking employees’ temperatures to keep sick workers home. But that doesn’t keep employees safe from sick customers.
That’s why a number of stores are considering taking customers’ temperatures before they enter. Public health experts say it is a prudent step: Grocery stores are one of the few public spaces still open. Millions of Americans visit them every day and come into close contact with stores’ employees.
"If they decided to roll such a program to their workers, under the assumption that it would prevent infected individuals from being at their stores, I do not see a reason why that wouldn't be rolled out to customers as well," said Dr. Luciana Borio, former director for medical and biodefense preparedness at the National Security Council under President Donald Trump and former acting chief scientist at the FDA. "Even a modest benefit can be of value when our public health options are so limited in the absence of diagnostic tests, capacity for large scale contact tracing or a vaccine."
Matthew Freeman, associate professor of environmental health and epidemiology at Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health, said it "makes sense for businesses to take the temperatures of shoppers to protect employees and patrons, but what would be the response if someone did indeed have a fever? A plan of action is critical."
“To protect our customers, employees and community, we will begin screening for temperature using non-invasive thermal cameras at our entrances,” said City Famers Market in Atlanta. Anyone with a temperature of 100.4 or higher “will be discreetly informed by a trained member of our staff, and we will find an alternative for your shopping.”
However, experts acknowledge this policy comes with its own challenges, including how to get groceries to shoppers with a fever and how to help them get care if they are sick.
Borio said it would be an "imperfect method" and cautioned that it has limitations, especially as some people may have the coronavirus but not exhibit any symptoms or fever, and people can take anti-fever medicine to pass through screenings.
John Logan, professor and director of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University, said it would be logistically challenging to implement.
"Checking the temperatures of shoppers would help protect both grocery workers and shoppers, but it's likely that not all shoppers would agree to this and it would require a major effort on the part of the chains when you consider the huge surge in numbers many of them are experiencing," he said.
Dan Bartlett, executive vice president of corporate affairs at Walmart, told reporters last week that the government would have to direct the company to begin taking customers' temperatures.
"That obviously is a step into a whole realm of public policy privacy issues that would have to come with clear guidance from the government," he said. "That's not for us to solve, in my opinion."
Big retailers and grocers have been criticized by some workers and safety experts for being slow to take aggressive steps during the crisis. At least five grocery store workers have died from the coronavirus so far in the United States.
"They have been reluctant to take any actions, even if they make sense from a public health perspective, that risk scaring shoppers," Logan said. "For example, many chains were initially reluctant to allow employees to wear masks, but most have relented on this."
Companies have stepped up safety measures as the crisis has worsened, adopting measures such as plexiglass at cash registers, signs reminding customers of social distancing and one-way aisles to reduce crowded lanes.
Some are limiting the number of customers that can be in a store at a time. Grocery chains are also lobbying public officials to designate grocery store workers as emergency personnel, which would give them priority access to personal protective equipment like masks and tests for the virus.
Walmart, Amazon, Home Depot, and grocery chain Bi-Lo have announced they will begin checking workers for fevers at stores and warehouses. Kroger said Monday that it started temperature checks in its distribution centers several weeks ago and is beginning to expand associate temperature checks to its stores. Walgreens will conduct temperature checks for employees at distribution centers and other facilities, but not all of its stores.
The Americans with Disabilities Act generally prohibits medical examinations. While measuring workers' temperature is generally considered to be a medical exam, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has said employers may measure workers' temperature to protect against the "community spread" of the coronavirus.
Neither the Centers for Disease Controls or the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration have issued guidance to employers on whether they recommend screening employees' temperatures.
At Walmart, any employee with a temperature above 100 degrees is sent home to seek medical treatment, if necessary, but will be paid for showing up. Walmart is in the process of sending infrared thermometers to all its stores and warehouses, which could take up to three weeks. Walmart managers and team leaders who have gone through HIPAA training will take workers' temperatures, a spokesperson said.
At Amazon, including its Whole Foods stores, "anyone registering a temperature over the CDC-recommended 100.4F will be asked to return home and only come back to work after they've gone three days without a fever," the company said in a blog post last week.
The National Retail Federation, which represents the industry, did not say whether companies should take their customers' temperatures. It said companies "doing everything they can to keep their associates and customers safe."
Screening workers’ temperatures is one of the most draconian policies companies have implemented. But experts say even this precaution is not stringent enough as the virus spreads and more workers get sick.