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Home Depot outbreak uncovers problems in shopping rules amid COVID-19: experts

Coronavirus: Ford ‘highly recommends’ wearing face masks in stores after outbreak reported at Richmond Hill Home Depot
WATCH: Ford ‘highly recommends’ wearing face masks in stores after outbreak reported at Richmond Hill Home Depot

Concentrated outbreaks of the coronavirus are popping up in Canada, even as cases gradually subside.

Since provinces have started to reboot their economies, recreational shopping has become an increasing concern for infectious disease and public health experts. The outbreak at a Home Depot in Richmond Hill, Ont., is a prime example.

“To have 14 staff members test positive, they’re clearly infecting each other. It doesn’t surprise me if one clerk gets infected by a customer, because that’s just occupational risk. I wouldn’t point to that and say, ‘We’re doing it wrong,'” said Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto.

“But when one staff person presumably infects a whole gaggle of others, there’s something negligent there.”

READ MORE: What shopping will look like as retail stores open across Canada

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The company confirmed the outbreak on Tuesday. Citing privacy issues, Home Depot was mum on details but said health protocols had been in place, including increased disinfecting, limited customer entry and other social-distancing measures. The company said all employees had been told to stay home if they felt unwell.

“We’ve taken additional steps to close the store overnight for deep cleaning,” said Paul Berto, director of corporate communications. “We’ve also adjusted hours to provide more time for cleaning and sanitizing with viricidal cleaners and will continue disinfecting high-touch and high-traffic areas several times a day.”

Home Depot said it enforces distancing measures in employee-only areas and provides face masks and other personal protective equipment to all associates.

The company noted in a statement to Global News that it only requires employees to wear masks when a two-metre distance cannot be maintained, “such as performing a two-person lift,” or where stores are required by law.

Recreational shopping is always going to be high-risk during a pandemic because it’s “maximally connective,” Furness said.

Kingston, Ont., retail stores open doors to customers
Kingston, Ont., retail stores open doors to customers

“You’re far more likely to bump into the virus that way,” he said. “You can have the same number of interactions with people who are closer to you and it’s way less risky.”

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“Could we say this wouldn’t have happened if we just had curbside?” he continued. “It would be much less likely.”

Ontario and other provinces have moved to allow stores to resume in recent weeks under new public health guidelines. Hardware stores were deemed essential by the Ontario government when the province first locked down in March. They were open for curbside pickup and delivery until early May when they were allowed to restart in-store payments and purchases.

While it makes sense to open certain stores like hardware centres, Furness said, doing so without enforcing mask-wearing is a “huge mistake.”

Masks became part of national public health recommendations in May, particularly when it’s not possible to maintain a consistent two-metre distance from others. They have not been mandated nationally or provincially.

READ MORE: A family gathering led to 15 coronavirus cases. Experts say it’s ‘inevitable’

Following the news of the Home Depot outbreak, Ontario Premier Doug Ford would not say whether he would consider making mask-wearing mandatory, but said he “highly, highly recommends it.”

“We’re stopping short of requiring it because the evidence isn’t compelling, it’s complicated. That doesn’t mean masks aren’t important,” Furness said.

“When you think about it, we’re not supposed to be in gatherings of more than 10 people and we’re supposed to maintain physical distance. When you’re in a store, you can’t always maintain that physical distancing and there’s likely more than 10 people in there. No one has any business not wearing a mask.”

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But the issue in the Home Depot situation is likely derived from protocols not being met among employees, Furness believes.

Ontario begins reopening some businesses
Ontario begins reopening some businesses

“We’re not seeing hundreds of cases in Richmond Hill, so I’m sure it was just one case who walked through the door. So are employees taking smoke breaks together? What does the break room look like?” he said. “I think it’s a bit of a smoking gun.”

Craig Janes, director of the School of Public Health and Health Systems at the University of Waterloo, said that while businesses can control their environment, it’s not as easy to control people’s behaviours in a store.

“There’s always going to be some that aren’t paying attention, not respecting physical distancing,” he said. “When you’re in a place like a hardware store, where you tend to need a fair amount of customer service and customer interaction, that can be really difficult for both employees and customers to maintain.”

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The York Region Public Health (YRPH) department, which is investigating the outbreak, has encouraged Home Depot to have all employees tested for the virus. Customers who visited the store between May 30 and June 9 have also been asked to self-monitor for 14 days or get tested.

Health officials believe the risk to the public is low.

READ MORE: Canada is one of few countries 2-metre distancing. Experts say reducing is ‘risky’

The experts agree that the Home Depot outbreak itself doesn’t warrant a review of keeping stores open — at least not yet. However, stores and customers should be prepared to walk things back if cases spike again, they said.

The right policies should’ve been in place prior to allowing stores to reopen, Furness said, but ultimately there will always be a need to “balance health and wealth.”

That balance could’ve been done on a sectored basis, according to Moshe Lander, an economist at Concordia University.

It’s the smaller retailers, not the big box stores, that couldn’t have stayed closed for much longer, he said. If the government had separated the two and provided support specifically to the “mom and pop retailers” for significant pandemic-related burdens, like rent, Lander believes there would’ve been a greater chance to mitigate potential health risks.

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“The big retailers could probably continue to function without stores opening. They have a strong online presence. They have connections already with home delivery and contracts likely with FedEx or UPS or Canada Post. They could’ve continued on,” he said.

Retail will inevitably be different after COVID-19, he added, so investing in ways to keep the smaller storefronts operational and not opening the doors to stores with 50- and 60-plus capacities could have long-term benefits.

For now, it’s a matter of reducing the risk under what’s been set out, said Janes.

“You’re not going to eliminate it,” he said. “It gets complicated, but we can reduce, it can be done.”

— with files from the Canadian Press and Global News’ Hannah Jackson