Local retailers such as H-E-B, Walmart and Target are tightening their restrictions on when, where and how customers may shop, following news of retail employees dying from the COVID-19 virus in New York and Illinois.

In the Waco area and elsewhere, Walmart has implemented a one-in-out-out policy, meaning newly arriving customers are waved through when an equal number has left the store, local Walmart spokesman Ryan Trimble said in an email.

“While many of our customers have been following the advice of the medical community regarding social distancing and safety, we have been concerned to still see some behaviors in our stores that put undue risk on our people,” said Dacona Smith, Walmart’s chief operating officer, in an online statement.

“We want to encourage customers to bring the fewest number of people per family necessary to shop, allow for space with other customers while shopping, and practice social distancing while waiting in lines,” Smith added.

Smith noted that states and municipalities have “set varying policies regarding crowd control — which has created some confusion regarding shopping.”

In Waco, retailers selling merchandise deemed non-essential have closed, meaning Richland Mall and the stores therein have temporarily called it quits, as have scattered destinations at Central Texas Marketplace. Grocery stores, home improvement retailers and drug stores generally remain open.

Walmart at many stores allows only one-way movement through aisles, “using floor markers and direction from associates,” Smith said.

Last Saturday, Walmart implemented a policy that allows no more than five customers for each 1,000 square feet of store space at a given time. That’s roughly 20% of store capacity under normal conditions, Smith said.

“To manage this restriction, the associates at a store will mark a queue at a single-entry door, in most cases the grocery entrance, and direct arriving customers there, where they will be admitted one-by-one and counted,” said Smith, whose comments appear on the Walmart website.

When a store hits capacity, the one-in-one-out directive activates.

Target also is counting customers, according to a local manager.

“No, we do not have a holding area,” said Christina Ferber, who manages the Target on Bosque Boulevard, debunking a Target-related rumor.

“We do have a team member specifically assigned to count people, and once that number approaches our limit, he or she informs store leaders,” said Ferber, who declined to get specific about the Waco store’s capacity. “Once we reach that limit, we go outside and set up a line, with people in that line spaced 6 feet apart. We have not yet had to create those lines.”

She said a cafe and a Starbucks location inside Target have temporarily closed as an extra precaution. She said shopping between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays is reserved for “vulnerable guests,” including the elderly, pregnant women and those with underlying health issues.

Toilet paper is delivered daily, said Ferber, “but usually sells fast.”

Big sellers during the pandemic, said Ferber, include groceries, toys, educational materials and Easter-related merchandise.

“Over the next two weeks, Target will begin providing all team members in our stores and distribution centers with high-quality, disposable face masks and gloves at the beginning of every shift, and strongly encourage our teams to wear them while working,” says the Target website.

Target noted it previously donated N95 antiviral respirator masks to first responders and healthcare professionals at more than 50 organizations across the country, and most recently announced it will donate an additional 2 million N95 respirator masks to the medical community nationwide.

H-E-B, Waco’s dominant grocery store, also has tightened rules.

“We are providing gloves and masks to our partners,” said Chelsea Thompson, in H-E-B public affairs, responding to a Tribune-Herald email message. “We are asking customers to practice social distancing throughout the store, including entrances. We have controlled entry in some stores to help promote social distancing inside the store. We do still have limits on some items and hope to lift those once our supply chain is caught up. We also are asking families to limit their grocery store visits to just one person.”

In a follow-up email, Thompson described the grocery chain’s controlled entries: “The store will have one entrance and a separate exit. There will be store managers at the entrance letting customers into the store slowly to help promote social distancing. Store will offer controlled entry on an as-needed basis.

“Some stores are asking for one-way shopping aisles but this based on how busy each store is,” Thompson replied to an inquiry.

Also, said Thompson, “we have decals on the floor that communicate social distancing to our customers. Our partners also are trained to talk about social distancing with customers. We do ask our customers to stay one grocery basket’s length away from other customers.”

An H-E-B employee at the East Riverside store in Austin has tested positive for coronavirus, the chain announced on its website.

H-E-B released a statement to an Austin radio station, saying, “As COVID-19 continues to impact communities around the world, our H-E-B family of more than 120,000 partners has not gone unaffected. Through early preparation, continuous guidance, strong sanitation and proper social distancing efforts, we are strongly focused on the health and safety of our partners and are grateful that Texas has experienced fewer cases than the national average.”

The website went on to outline steps H-E-B is taking to control the virus, including emphasizing social distancing, assigning so-called COVID Action Managers to the task. It is installing Plexiglass partitions around the checkstand and bagging areas, and placing decals on store floors to mark where customers should stand during checkout and throughout the store.

Drugstore giant Walgreens, which has several Waco locations, announced it is installing Plexiglass shields between employees and customers, and making face masks available. It also is checking for fever at distribution centers.

Forbes magazine has reported Walgreens saw a 30% increase in purchases of health and wellness products in March compared with those in March a year earlier. However, that same report said foot traffic is abysmal.

Amazon also is making masks available and checking temperatures.

Photo gallery: The latest scenes from the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. and around the world

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